School used student laptop webcams to spy on them at school and home

According to the filings in Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al, the laptops issued to high-school students in the well-heeled Philly suburb have webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools' administrators, who have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the Robbins's child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these machines.

If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come. I don't know about you, but I often have the laptop in the room while I'm getting dressed, having private discussions with my family, and so on. The idea that a school district would not only spy on its students' clickstreams and emails (bad enough), but also use these machines as AV bugs is purely horrifying.

Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years. They tell kids to treat their personal details as though they were precious.

your privacy is worthless and you shouldn't try to protect it.

Update: The school district admits that student laptops were shipped with software for covertly activating their webcams, but denies wrongdoing.

Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (PDF) (Thanks, Roland!)

(Image: IMG_6395, a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike image from bionicteaching's photostream)


  1. If they’re recording images of underage children without parental consent, couldn’t that be considered child pornography?

    1. Absolutely. Just look into some of the recent “sexting” cases brought by overzealous prosecutors who don’t understand the spirit of the laws they are over-enforcing.

      That said, I sincerely hope that images of children in various states of dress *are* found on school servers during discovery as the only fitting punishment for this abominable, blatant, creepy, ill-conceived, intentional invasion of privacy is jail time for any school official who’s name appears on any related communiqué.

      1. Seems to me the recent texting prosecutions show the student will be prosecuted for possession of a laptop with their own naked picture, with the principal as a witness for the prosecution.

    2. If the student is naked someplace where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, it is a both a violation of federal privacy statutes AND a violation of the child pornography statues… makes it kind of stupid for the school official to admit that they are doing this, doesn’t it?

    3. I think you need to check your definition of pornography. But I’m picking up what you’re putting down, it’s a gross invasion of privacy.

    4. You would have to have intent to prove child pornography otherwise, you’d have to sue the manufacturer as well for creating such a device.

    5. Only if the images were in fact pornographic in nature. Other wise it’s your standard breach of privacy.

      I’m very very dissappointed in my old school district. It’s a shame because all of the admins. and teachers there that I know are fantastic educators and great people in general. This really reflects on upper level IT and management decsions, not the teachers.

    6. nanuq- Good point. For all we know some pedo actually did this and this article is a diversion.

      Any moderately skilled geek could hack the feed mid-stream and see whatever the administrator was watching.

    7. Not child porn but diferent states have different laws on what you can record. For example in some sates it is legal to record a video of somebody secretly but not audio. As long as the video is not of a private nature. Thing is a home is full of things that are private. In schools around here there are webcams hooked up to computers in the class rooms but the parents are told this and given a link so they can watch their kids and see how they act in class. If somebody is watching you at home they could see you getting dressed or going to the shower or toilet and that is cause for concern. Recording in the class room is one thing but at HOME? This school deserves what they get because even if they win parents will stop bringing their kids there and go to other schools.

  2. Things like this are incredibly disturbing to me and should be to everyone.

    To the crowd who are of the “I don’t have anything to hide so I’m not concerned about privacy protection” – you know that laptop sitting on the desk in your 14yo daughter’s bedroom? Umm, yeah, the webcam is controlled by a government funded organization that might be recording her next time she’s getting undressed.

    Not concerned about privacy? Nothing to hide?

    1. I often wonder, do these mythical people with nothing to hide never close their curtains at night? Never close their bathroom doors, and have clear glass on their bathroom windows? Have never kept a diary?

    2. There’s a difference between “It’s okay for them to monitor what I do outside of my house, I’ve got nothing to hide” (Which is what most, if not all, people mean if they say that they have nothing to hide), and “It’s okay for them to monitor what I had for lunch, how much my latest dump weighed and what I do in my private time.

  3. On a recent episode of PBS’s Frontline (titled: Digital Nation), they interviewed a school that openly showed the ability to turn on webcams of student computers. I was appalled when I saw this, and the fact that they were so candid about it. They actually showed how they did it, and used footage from the webcams, showing kids who were clearly unaware. And when the kids did become aware, they immediately turned the computer off. The principal seemed very proud of this technology. Is this possibly the same school?

    1. It’s not the same school. I watched that Frontline episode as well, but it was not clear to me that the school could remotely turn on the webcam. It looked as though the school could use remote desktop to monitor how the student was using the laptop, not actually monitor the student.

  4. Digital Nation, the documentary/project that Douglas Ruskoff was/is a big part of, explored a similar issue. They showed a school (middle or high school) that really embraced laptops and new media as part of the learning process. It was the job of a staff member to spend a couple hours each day monitoring what the students were doing – working, surfing, etc. The staff member who was monitoring showed how he could remotely snap a photo when a student was using Photobooth during class, and how this usually caused them to get back to work.

    But that was at school with laptops presumably provided by the school, so while it still feels a bit odd to me, I think there’s a good argument for the practice in that environment.

    But to extend that to the students’ homes? That’s terrible. And really creepy.

    I hope it wasn’t the same school that they showed in Digital Nation, because I kinda liked their style.

    Also: the documentary and ongoing discussion over at the Digital Nation page of the PBS site is great. You should check it out if you haven’t.


    1. Format your hard drive and then send it to me. I’ll send you back 90% of everything that was ever on that drive.

      All sarcasam aside, I do see your point. Not having a device connected to any network would be the only way to prevent broadcasting data from your home.

      1. DBAN. When you want to be really sure.

        Or boot from Knoppix and cat /dev/zero > dev/sda. Modern disks have so high recording density that the old multiple-overwrite recovery techniques from the age of MFM do not apply anymore. Besides, a school does not possess a magnetic microscope anyway.

        Or just boot from said Knoppix (or other live CD) and keep the disk intact. You get a functional computer, and school gets no way to snoop as their software uselessly sleeps on the unused, unbooted disk, as a bonus without leaving any logs.

        1. @Shaddack Thanks for the DBAN link. That’ll come in useful for me. I have several small HDs around that I want to recycle into storage for home file server.

        2. That’s not the teacher using the camera. The teacher is monitoring the DESKTOP and the children are using some program named Photobooth in order to see themselves. If they didn’t have that program on then the faculty wouldn’t be able to see anything from the camera. Perhaps that’s what has happened in the case being reported – the kid was doing who knows what when the teacher activated the desktop and saw it?

          That said – the teacher also demonstrated being able to take control of the far end computer when he took a picture using the app on the students desktop. If the teacher can do that then he can likely also launch or load programs remotely that WOULD allow for images to be gathered.

      2. not the way DBAN formats it you wont, nor the way i do. yay zeroed-out hard drive (but yeah, that takes a few hours). if i was given a machine pre-installed by a school, i would certainly be connecting it to the net when at home via a proxy, and capturing all traffic it sends. i’d certainly want to find out what kinds of backdoors and reporting mechanisms it has, and either do a clean install or modify the reporting routines.

      3. Kind of reminds me of that initial Battle Star Galactica episode where Capitan Adama keeps all the ships computers off the main network so that they don’t get infiltrated by the Cylons.

    2. @Zergonapal: Or you know, you could just put a piece of electrician’s tape over the webcam lens (or an adhesive bandage, if you’re worried about keeping the webcam lens free of tape residue so you can actually use the thing when you choose to).

      Quicker, easier, verifiable at a glance, reversible in an instant, and less likely to cause headaches from having to deal with the institution that issued you the hardware, be it a school as in the case above, an employer, or your cellphone provider.

      I can just imagine the following being said: “No wonder you can’t connect to the school network; someone’s formatted this thing and it no longer has our standardized minimum software load on it.”

    3. No it’s not. There might be hidden partitions and special boot sector code to load stuff from those partitions before the operating system gets loaded. One might want to repartition all hard drives and install a completely different operating system, like e.g. linux, overwriting the MBR.

      This isn’t bulletproof either, see, the BIOS in those school issued computers might contain what ever boogie code, like for example a client to send webcam feed over the network.

      The only surefire way is not to accept those computers when offered. Or just take it and sell it or trade it for a shitload of weed or something.

  5. It’s hard to know what to say about this. It utterly dumbfounds me.

    I mean the school had to decide this was something they should do, indicating more than one person made this decision. At the very least, one person made this decision then a lot of other people knew about it and didn’t cry out in outrage. Somehow it was kept a secret, until this Vice Principal character decided a students behaviour warranted disciplinary action. Outing the whole program.

    I mean, how screwed are the heads of the people that decided this was a good idea? How utterly stupid is this vice principal thinking it wouldn’t bring a lawsuit and about the worst negative publicity you could imagine on the school. How pathetically weak were the people who knew about this, disagreed and still kept their mouths shut? Everything about this is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

    1. >> How utterly stupid is this vice principal thinking
      >> it wouldn’t bring a lawsuit

      Lawsuit? Try criminal charges! In many jurisdictions it is a felony to photograph a person without their consent in various stages of undress. If there are even partially nekkid pix on the school server from this covert monitoring then someone (or perhaps many) face conviction and sentencing to years in prison and life on the sex offender registry.

      If the allegations are truth, these administrators are ginormous tools.

  6. It’s weird to hear all these older people talk about how kids are growing up wrong because you can’t spank kids anymore in school. They talk about how teachers and administrators are so afraid of lawsuits that they can’t hug an emotionally upset kid or even really defend themselves if the kid gets violent…

    And then there are all these contrasting stories of legit lawsuits like this one and absurd zero tolerance drug policies and strip searches in the bathroom over students having OTC headache medicine.

    School admins should stay off my kid’s webcam, stay out of my kid’s Facebook comments, and stick to their actual jobs.

  7. Well, what do you expect? You put a camera and a microphone with internet connection in your house, people will look and listen. If you are concerned about your laptop, think about your phone (apart from the phone companies, think WLAN). All these machines are roving bugs.

    1. What I don’t expect is that the person who provided me with the laptop, be they school, work, or a salesperson down at Bob’s Computers and Storm Door, can activate the camera remotely. That takes supplemental software, and a deliberate attempt to circumvent privacy.

  8. I saw this on Digital Nation, it seems more harmless than it actually is. What they can do is look at what the kids are doing on the school laptops while they’re in class, when they’re supposed to be learning. They find kids regularly go into the application to goof off in class. Obviously though if they’re taking these laptops home the technology shouldn’t work there, and administrators doing this should know they’re obviously crossing a line, spying on kids outside of school. That’s certainly like peeping tom like behavior, don’t we put people in jail for that?

    1. Just wanted to point out that I don’t believe many people would object to school administrators being able to see what you are doing on school computers. I did not mind this at all when I was in high school as the IT people made it clear they were able to see what we were doing. However spying on what is going on via webcam does not even tell what a student is doing. (if they look bored does it mean they are studying? :P)

  9. The average secondary school kid masturbates fairly regularly, and I’m sure plenty of them would use the internet to find porn given the opportunity. Hey, my school just gave me this awesome new laptop, I can use that!

    Let’s get the child porn charges a-rolling.

  10. I don’t think it would be considered child pornography unless the images were intentionally used for a sexual purpose; there is no indication, at least from here, that that was the case.

    1. Possession of child porn under US federal law is a strict liability offense, similar to drug charges. The government doesn’t need to prove you intended to distribute it, etc. to convict you of a felony and send you to prison. See this link from NCMEC:

      If this program did capture images of children at home in any stage of undress — even unintentionally — the people responsible face criminal charges as well as potentially catastrophic financial liability. Of course given that this was a public school, guess who ultimately will pay the millions of dollars in attorneys’s fees and settlement costs as a result of this stunningly idiotic, police-state policy? Taxpayers. Unbelievable.

    2. Splenax, I am pretty positive that you are mistaken. The child porn laws are pretty stringent, in fact, only one step bellow terrorism in importance. You could be on an email list, get a pornographic photo of a youth in that list while at work, maybe even merely look at it and end up in prison if you don’t clean out that internet cache immediately. The government doesn’t really care if you actually used it for sexual purposes (report it to the FBI immediately to protect yourself). This happens more often than you think and peoples lives have been ruined by it!!!

      That brings me to one of many aspects of this story that is outrageous. How do we know that this wasn’t done for sexual purposes?

      Inappropriate Captcha: of thumping

    3. Intent does NOT matter. If they EVER got one single photo of a nude child, then it would be indeed considered pornography. You simply have to be in possession, it does not matter how or where the image came from. Do you really think they just take peoples word that they didn’t have porno intent?

  11. I see, so when someone donates a copy of Little Brother to a school the teachers and administrators only read the first chapter and treat it as a HOWTO?

    1. If they have so much as one pic of a minor in a sexualized situation — and if they’ve been using this remote webcam activation while the computers are at home, images of gherkin-jerkin and such are practically inevitable — it’s good for five-to-life, intent or no intent.

  12. Putty. Use putty. I’ve done that ever since I noticed (many many years ago) the contextual menu (right-click) on flash content: when I saw “do you authorize Adobe to access your webcam” I realized this was possible. So I cover the webcam with tape or putty, the mic too, and on my desktop PC’s I don’t have any of those connected permanently.

    And that was BEFORE all those terrifying laws our governments are imposing on us today (I live in France): they are, for the sake of copyright protection or war on pedopornography, granting themselves the right, or worse, imposing on us by law, to install what they call “protection software” (read “surveillance software” aka spyware) on all of your computers.

    In less than months, governments will be able to turn on your cam and mic and watch you.

    It’s a government’s dream come true.

    Of course, the whole “copyright” thing or “pedopornographic threat” is just bullshit. Copyright is a private matter concerning a non-strategic industry, of a ridiculously low financial impact on global economy compared to many other sectors that are doing much worse, in fact the media industry is doing just fine and don’t need that protection of INSANE proportions, they just have to adjust their business model to a changing market, that’s exactly the job all those overpaid execs we’re hired for in the first place; and pedopornography is marginal, terrifyingly horrible for those poor kids, but fortunately marginal. On behalf of those matters, we are seeing our civil right severely limited??? No, that’s nonsense.

    Power is to those who control the communication channels, and can survey the crowd. That’s the one and only reason for all this.

    Have a laptop? Take it apart, locate the mic and cam, insert a physical switch, or use putty.


    1. Another possibility: honeypot.

      Hardware modification of the camera circuit, so a LED is lit when the device is powered up (it may be kept off to save batteries when not in use). When the LED lights up without authorization, we know something is wrong and worth investigating.

      Similar for audio, though an USB soundcard would work better here.

      If the device stays on all the time, check the chip’s pins with a scope, find which signals correspond with activity, and connect the suitable ones to LEDs (or maybe piezo buzzers).

      Then when something unusual happens, do conventional network forensics on the device itself, or (better) on your firewall. Check what data flow where, use IP addresses to discover who is pulling the strings.

      As an added bonus, the possibility to be easily outed, without having any chance of knowing so, could act as a deterrent to wannabe spies.

      1. When I worked at Apple we made a very big deal about the light being automagically on when the camera is being used. The light can’t be off if the camera is on unless you crack open the case and messed with the hardware.

        I’m surprised there are laptops that don’t do this.. it doesn’t even sound like a feature…

  13. A few days ago, I caught a PBS Frontline: digital nation piece (rebroadcast from ~6 months ago) which showed the assistant principal remotely activating a webcam on a student’s school-provided laptop (during school hours).

    Skip to 4:39 if you’re impatient, the section is called “Assistant Principal Dan Ackerman can remotely monitor the students’ laptops for inappropriate use.”

    Bronx IS 339. Shh, don’t tell them to sue.

    1. In the “Digital Nation” Frontline episode, that Vice Principal was NOT “activating students’ webcams”, he was using Apple Remote Desktop to see what the students were doing on their laptops. If the students were using the iSight to take pictures of themselves in Photobooth, he could see that, along with anything else on the students’ monitors.

  14. Cory, this makes Little Brother seem pretty tame.

    Just goes to show that “people in authority” will think up worse things to do than we can imagine, if they are given the chance.

  15. Well I was kinda misquoting the phrase from Aliens as a comment on the fact you don’t really know what is on a computer someone just hands to you.
    That its best to start with a clean slate. I guess I was being to subtle, sorry :D
    That aside it was a pretty terrible idea to spy on kids in their own home, if you abuse the trust invested in you then you lose all the respect of your authority.

  16. #1: certainly in my country (UK) there is nothing to stop anybody taking an image of a person without their permission (unless of course the police arbitrarily decide that it may be used for terrorism purposes). I don’t believe a clothed image of a child would be considered child pornography, any more than a normal clothed image of an adult would be considered adult pornography. Schools who ban photos of clothed children on child pornography grounds (such as videoing school plays) are rather missing the point, really. I suspect anybody who gets their rocks off looking at clothed children isn’t going to bother going to the effort of infiltrating a school play.

    1. just FYI, in the US, even photos of clothed children in ‘sexually suggestive’ poses and/or with emphasis on the genital area can be considered child porn, and you can be prosecuted for it.

  17. Man, reading this I’m having Little Brother flashbacks. Guess reality is worse then fiction after all, if this is true.

    Well, here’s me hoping that the school gets ripped a new one in court.

  18. “Improper behaviour in his home” ? How can a school even discipline a child for something that did not happen on school ground ?

    What kind of school does that ? And why ? They feel they don’t have enough work watching these kids during school time ?

    1. When I was in high school (2000-2004) we were required to take home a document for our parents to sign acknowledging that the school could punish us for any actions taking place at any time and any location starting with the beginning of the first school day of the year 24/7 until the end of the last school day of the year. If a classmate decided to tell my principal that they saw me smoking a cigarette outside a local convenience store I could be suspended in school and fined by the school district for violating its tobacco policy even though it wasn’t on school property or during school hours or even at an extra-curricular school activity.

  19. The administrator(s) responsible should be immediately fired. If I were a student or parent involved I would be out for blood.

  20. On some level I’ve made my peace with the fact that this kind of technological intrusion into my privacy WILL happen, more and more frequently, as a consequence of accepting the benefits of that technology.

    What I CAN’T deal with is the idea that this kind of intrusion can be pulled off by people as stupid as this vice-principal, who trotted out the top-secret spy-cam footage in some two-bit student discipline matter? Christ, you’d have to think twice about letting the existence of that video be known even if it recorded someone being murdered!

    This is like riddling the Soviet Embassy with a thousand different bugs during the Cold War, then using them to publicly shame their ambassador for littering.

  21. An ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure: If ‘issued’ a laptop (especially if its not still sealed in its original manufacturer packaging), before using, erase the hard drive and reinstall the OS from CD/DVD.

  22. I am the sister of Blake Robbins and I just want to say I love all of your comments :) I’m sorry, but school watching us at home is taking it way too far. I hope they get ripped a new one too.

  23. those responsible will not see much in the way of punishment – these are government employees, after all.

    people will go on paid leave, and the matter settled out of court. a pittance will be doled out, and the ubiquity of privacy invasion will continue unhindered.

    we’ve over legislated ourselves into a corner, and soon you will be punished for every infraction, no matter how technical. your car will be tracked and you’ll receive a bill every month for every mile an hour you sped, every stop sign you cali rolled through.

    talk of drastic measures to alter our government will be classified as conspiracy, and you will be abducted, stripped of your rights, and thrown in a foreign prison for being a terrorist.

    it’ll take a while – 20 or 30 more years – but don’t worry, we’ll get there.

    1. what ever happened to ‘zero tolerance’ – which they use as a dont think policy to frequently punish students for borderline stuff. These idiots should at least all lose their job and end up with criminal records.

  24. These programs offering laptops to students are becoming quite popular. I have no idea how common this sort of heavy-handed monitoring program is – or where any school district I know of would get the kind of money required to pay for said monitoring program but, there is a nice, low-tech solution to some of the worst of the privacy problems with it.

    If you have been issued a computer by your company or your school, you may wish to keep a post-it note over the camera when you are not using it.

    It won’t protect your email or your chat logs but, at least your creepy assistant principal will not get to see you naked.

  25. @splenax: You’re thinking is based on the older, more rational, child pornography laws. The newer laws are written by people(?) who think they own you, and they don’t care about the whys and wherefores – they just want to enjoy the punishing.

  26. Pennsylvania has a 2 person consent wiretap / recording law… Unless the parents signed a consent form that allowed the monitoring / recording this is probably a felony as well…

  27. Forget the lawsuit (well, I don’t actually mean forget the lawsuit. By all means sue the crap out of them). I want someone in jail for this. These are criminal violations, not just civil ones. I want the FBI and the Pennsylvania state police on the case here.

  28. This scares me to no end. My 8th grade son’s school issues them laptops in the 7th and 8th grades, and he and we sign off on their “acceptable use policy” (which he has breached several times but that’s another issue…). It now frightens me to think that they had the opportunity to do this for the last couple of years and it didn’t even occur to me. Granted I don’t think any of them there – besides the IT teacher – knows this is possible either, but I digress…. I am printing this right now and bringing it to their attention, and taking the suggestions above to heart. Oooh, I’m not happy about this… driving to school now…

  29. yes nutbastard, but not without some level of cooperation on our part… refuse the trojan horses every time they come around. When the camera is on put your bare ass against the lens at every opportunity (I mean this figuratively, of course).

    The first rule of non-violence: refuse to cooperate with that which is humiliating. Thanks Ghandi. Now get your kids out of that crazy ass place!

  30. im from this school and i can say this kid is pretty stupid, we all signed a contract in the beginning when we recieved these computers and we basically agreed and signed off to this, either way, i put a piece of paper taped over the camera on my computer

    1. If true, irrelevant. You’re almost certainly minor and can’t sign a legally enforceable contract. And if the laptop is required for coursework, any such contract is probably invalid as coerced.

    2. While you may be right about the student being stupid (really, what student isn’t, in many respects?), and you are obviously clever for using a post-it note to cover the lens, at least you understand the real problem, here. The school administration definitely has the legal right to do what they did, because they have a signed agreement with the student, which probably incorporates the parents, that ALLOWS them to do this type of spying. And it’s not really “spying” if you agreed to it in the first place. No, the problem is STILL, as it ever was, the absence of parental oversight. If a parent had simply read the agreement before signing it, or before allowing their child to sign it, they would have been aware of the intentions of the school, and they would have had the opportunity to refuse the laptop. Instead, perhaps greed (free laptop!) and ignorance (they can’t really do that, can they?) and carelessness (what agreement?) have combined, yet again, in such a way that school-aged children are being taken advantage of by their elders. What do you expect from a society that values athletes over scientists and that considers its teachers to be worth less than the cost of a maid’s services? You get what you deserve. FWIW, I think the school was completely wrong to use the capability outside of the school, but then again, I also think it’s wrong to require the use of a laptop in a school situation. It’s algebra, people … not rocket science.

    3. You call this kid stupid?? What do you call yourself for placing a paper on the camera? Smart? I think not!

      What the school did is unethical, is a violation, it is a crime. When you grow up and have kids of your own then go ahead and say that a kid is “stupid”.

  31. Wipe the computer, install an entirely new OS (linux based would be secure) and do a BIOS flash. There, problem solved.

    Anyways, schools shouldn’t have jurisdiction over things that have happened outside of campus if the offenses were in no way criminal. Yes, it might be okay to use one to convict a rape or theft, but for the school to have jurisdiction over civil and domestic offenses, it’s just wrong.

    Remember, it’s illegal search and seizure for the government to spy in peoples homes without their consent. Shouldn’t be the same for schools?

    1. Problem solved? Everybody who is advocating hardware modifications or software modifications of any sort is completely ignoring the fact that a loaned computer from a school is still school property, and any modification is declared willful destruction and/or mutilation and/or defacement of school property and the responsible person(s) face consequences up to and including being expelled from the school and a monetary fine up to the value of the computer. Not a good risk to take. Easy solution: duct tape over the camera.

  32. I am a senior at the school in question, Harriton High School. There has been mounting tension between the students and administrators. We feel more like prisoners in a high security jail than students put in a high school to learn. The way they treat us is disgusting. This is no way to raise a generation of impressionable children. They are teaching us to assume that we are not trusted and should not trust others. I am a good person and a good student. I do NOT deserve to be on 24 hour surveillance (if you didn’t know, they have cameras placed around the entire school also-because having webcams on us at home isn’t enough). The people that are running this establishment obviously missed reading Orwell’s 1984 when they went to high school, but I did not.

    1. The school my wife teaches at uses security cameras. They were recently called on to provide evidence in a sexual assault incident. That being said, I in no way support using the webcam to spy. Bad idea.

  33. @antonejohnson

    The trick to avoiding the “deeps pockets that are actually us taxpayers” is the following: go after the individuals involved and their personal asset through criminal and civil legal attack. It should never be just about extracting money; it should be about the principal on down losing their teaching credential, forever, prison time and having their personal assets attached to any money settlement. The only method to avoid the anonymity of organizational protection is to make the pain deeply personal so as to assure personal responsibility for their actions. Organizational immunity creates moral hazard in the actions of all members.

  34. When I first read this story, my reaction was “no way this could be happening”. But, it seems to be for real. This is utterly unacceptable. Maybe it’s ok during school hours but how are they going to know if the kid is at school or home sick?

  35. I think what’s most troubling is that what brought this activity to light was the schools attempt to discipline a student for “improper behavior in his home.” Really? How misguided are the administrators at this school? It’s within reason to monitor your students while they’re on school property, but to attempt to extend your authority into the home, using unauthorized video surveillance is just reckless and arrogant. A lawsuit is obviously warranted, but I think that charges should be filed if at all possible.

  36. “Format C, its the only way to be sure.”

    Hardly, unless you’re going to have them format their drives every time they connect back to school. It’s not exactly rocket-science to have a gpo or login script spray on monitoring software again.

  37. I saw something similar to this on a Bronx school on Frontline a week ago. I think the key point to this is they are monitoring school property. I do think its a bit much to cite someone for improper use at home, but if you don’t like it then don’t use it. Kids like adults need to learn that when they use someone else’s computer, ie a company or something else its not theirs to do what they want with it. Sure the school took this too far but its a good lesson for the kids to learn that if its not theirs then they should be careful

  38. I am in such wide-eyed shock that I am having trouble blinking. WHO thought this was a good idea? WHO implemented this insanity? Indeed, this is seriously criminal.

    *This* kind of ridiculous behavior on the part of admins is why, should I have kids, they will be homeschooled. I don’t know why people in school administrations insist on trying to view kids as less than people, rights-less automatons who can be treated however the admins think is “necessary” to maintain some bizarre concept of discipline.

  39. @thermidorthelobster: In the UK, taking a photo of someone is illegal if they have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy,’ which at home they definitely do. And if it’s in the child’s bedroom, there’s a good chance the school would have had access to footage of them not fully clothed. Which makes this thing far, FAR too creepy. The whole lot of them should be fired, jailed and never allowed near children again.

  40. I live in this township and have a daughjter in High School with a school-isssued laptop.

    If I had known the school district had this capability, I would have refused to use their laptop and purchased one from an outside source for my daughter.

    Anyone employed by the township who had any knowledge of this capability or access to use the remote activation should be terminated immediately.

  41. I am a technology teacher and read this article to my 9th graders, who all take MacBooks home every night. Then we had a discussion. This class came up with this comment: When students are at home they are not on the school district network, therefore the school rules, the school Acceptable Use Policy (A.U.P.) and any spyware inside the computer is not legal. The class read the schools A.U.P. and there is nothing in it that says anything about use of the computer at home.

    I then asked the students, “What if the spyware was just to view screens and not the students, is that acceptable since the laptop is technically the school’s property? There was a very loud response to this question and the student went back to the school district does not own my socket to the internet at home, therefore they have no rights on my home network, even if it is the school’s equipment.

    We came to the conclusion that the legality of this situation is very confusing. Yes, the school is responsible for the safety of it’s students, that is why we have them and their parents sign an A.U.P. This is also why the Government has imposed laws upon educators like the Child Internet Protection Act.

    Our class also came up with these questions:
    1. Why was the spyware that was put into the laptops transparent to all users?
    – A comment made after this question was, “It causes fear and mistrust, kids will get scared, it creates an unsafe community”.
    2. Why do the adults want to spy on students?
    3. Is there some kind of study related to this; about work ethic or time spent doing some activity on the laptops?
    4. If there is a problem why didn’t the adults talk to the student first to see if it was necessary to bring in their parents?
    5. And assuming this is true, what does this do for the safety of students?
    6. Who approved this spyware and for what purpose?
    7. Isn’t the point of giving a laptop to a high school student to make them responsible for something? Why do they need to be watched?

  42. Ew ew ew ew ew ew ew. That is wrong and creepy, and ew. I really wish MacBooks and other laptops with built-in webcams had a physical switch to deactivate them. As if this wasn’t enough of a reason to convince a company to add it to the feature list.

    I also really hope the principals and other administrators involved in this decision to spy on students lose their jobs. And those of you with school-issued laptops, this might be a good time to go ahead and re-format those hard drives and install something else, possibly linux?

    Please keep us updated on this case Boing Boing!

  43. This is illegal electronic surrveilence/invasion of privacy at its best and unintentional child pornography at its worst. If these people(ALL OF THEM) do not go to jail for a LONG time I will be very very dissapointed in our system. I am looking forward to a huge trial and watching these sick *expletive*’s go away. Teach you to play “big brother”.

  44. Wow, that is just crazy. Someone should get jail time for this, and I’m 100% positive that they contract the students signed would not hold up in court.

  45. While it is unlikely, I am hoping that the vice-principal in question was of the view that this was invasion of privacy, and intentionally took the action in an effort to bring the practice to light. Call me an optimist.

    That said, throw the book at them.

    1. That was my second thought too. Schools can be nasty with the whole group-think thing, for teachers and admins. It might have been the only way to do it.

  46. I’m sure there was some legalese buried in the user agreement that gives them enough wiggle room in a lawsuit. GAFFER’S TAPE!

  47. this is a violation of civil rights and these people have to be prosecuted. who do they think they are? they should be canned, sued and jailed, period, no discussion.

  48. Don’t forget that microphones are accessible as well. Electrical tape only takes you so far.

    Well. What did you all expect?

    StudentsHaveNoConstitutionalRights+TotalInformationAwarenessIsOK+WeCanDoAnythingWeWantWeOwnIt+JustGetOverIt = Cameras secretly accessible from outside administrators. Americans surrendered their 9th Amendment guarantees of rights not enumerated, so you only have business contracts, EULAs, and petty tyrants that can grant you privacy. Don’t like it? Take it all back, the cameras, the searches, the drug laws that are the base of all this madness. Get used to a society less safe but as free as it always was before we panicked like cattle.

  49. I’ve never felt the need to comment before…but i do now… i’m going back to school to become a teacher, and i find this disturbing and disgusting…the above comments about Little Brother flash-backs hit it right on the head…

  50. This is what happens when police and others in authority persist in getting away with egregious behavior, which creates a moral hazard that can spread to anybody else who believes themselves to be defined by a similar authority. It’s “what about the children?” taken to perverse extremes, allowing school administrators to actually answer that question whenever they may be asked. What about the children? “Feeding the fish, at the moment.”

  51. I’m trying to understand. Did they actually activate a webcam and watch a live feed? Or did they search the drive once back at school and see some captures taken at home?

    I know this is sci-fi creepy, but kids do act horribly sometimes: imagine the capture is of the kid abusing a mentally challenged schoolmate? Or cutting his own arms with razor blades? If an admin finds evidence of this, should he let it go because of privacy concerns? (and the answer to that might very well be “maybe” if it serves a larger principle)

    I just wonder what home offense would even be of interest to a school- Criminal? Using the webcam for cyber-bullying or threatening to rape another student?

  52. wow. just… wow.

    on another note… why on earth is this school district (one of the wealthiest in the country) receiving federal grants to purchase laptops when these kids’ parents can surely afford them on their own??

  53. Yeah this creeps me out because I go to Lower Merion High School, which is in the same district as Harriton

  54. I would think the school is protected from law suites since it is a government entity. Also when parents sign up for the loaner or free laptops I am sure the parents and any student 18 years of age or older must sign some sort of terms and conditions either by signing a document contract or by reading that message when the computer is first turned on and it says click this box and you agree to the terms and conditions of microsoft and like Asus, Hp or what ever manufactor of laptop you have. It is the fault of people not reading the terms and conditions. I remember one company had a contest in its terms and conditions that no one claimed for like 6 months and only one person claimed it. He got like $10,000 because he read the terms and conditions… I have no problem with the school using the webcam as spying since the school does own the laptop. I think that that their should also be keylogers installed as well. And all accounts should be limited or guests so that the users can not even change the wallpaper or use usb thumb drives. With Windows 7 admins now can lock out certain usb devices from being used.

    1. Read the lawsuit. It spells out what the district said about the computers when they gave them out. There was nothing about “we have the right to turn on your webcam when you’re in your own home and see what you’re doing and then punish you if we find what you’re doing in your own room to be “inappropriate”.

  55. Hi everyone,

    I go to the school that this is taking place in and this is rediculous that an administrator would do this. However we do get laptops for the year, and sometimes after a restart or a log in, the camera just goes on and stays on. I put something over it but its ridiculous that they are allowed to do this. If you have any questions I’ll be happy to answer them

  56. While the case that’s currently filed is a civil action, I’d hope that the local police – or, better still, a federal agency like the FBI – gets involved and files criminal charges. I would like to see those responsible be convicted & incarcerated of the obvious felony-level violations involved.

  57. “If an admin finds evidence of this, should he let it go because of privacy concerns?”
    Admin shouldn’t have access to this info in the first place. We are not talking about somebody accidentally stumbling upon a picture. We are talking about a systematic, intentional invasion of privacy.

    “I just wonder what home offense would even be of interest to a school- Criminal? Using the webcam for cyber-bullying or threatening to rape another student?”
    This is primarily of concern to the police, not the school, and even the police can’t wiretap you without a court warrant (and I don’t know about the American system, but in my country they can get the warrant only for investigations of a strictly limited list of gravest felonies, such as drug trafficking and terrorism.) The idea that a school should be able to invade your privacy more easily then a public security body is preposterous.

  58. Absolutely despicable arrogance. If these allegations are true:

    1. The school should be sued into bankruptcy.

    2. The administrators who made the decision to spy on children should have webcams installed in every room of their homes, and be put online for the entire world to see — for the rest of their natural lives.

    1. My kids are at high school in this school district. While appropriate punishment for those involved in this woeful and illegal set of decisions and processes is entirely appropriate, I don’t think that anyone wants the school or school district “sued into bankruptcy”. I’ve had my own deep objections to the high school laptop policy, but they had nothing to do with the issues raised in this lawsuit, which is pretty hair-raising material.

  59. I’m trying to envision a scenario in which the school’s actions are even remotely defensible. So far, the closest I’ve been able to get goes like this:

    The school’s acceptable use policy requires the parents/kid to agree “I promise not to do anything illegal with this computer.”

    All webcam captures are stored to be examined later for compliance.

    The kid in question deliberately took a naughty/illegal webcam pic, and due to either apathy or ignorance, didn’t clean up after himself.

    This is still really shaky, and begs the question of why the webcam captures outside of the school day are being recorded at all, but it’s the closest I’ve been able to get to a defense for the school’s action.

  60. “I don’t think it would be considered child pornography unless the images were intentionally used for a sexual purpose; there is no indication, at least from here, that that was the case.”

    Think again. Child porn is child porn. It doesn’t matter if you claim: “Oh, I wasn’t intending to use it for any sexual purpose!”

  61. I’ve been reading this site for a while now and haven’t felt the need to comment, now I do. This article does cause flashbacks to Little Brother, and Big Brother as well. I think we also need to ask ourselves if we’re creating a generation without the expectation of privacy, start exposing children to constant electronic monitoring at a young age and they’ll grow up expecting that to be the norm. This is disgusting and blatantly wrong, but do the kids even realize that this should never have occurred in the first place?

  62. Having been a school IT manager for years I find the fact that you would be able to enable a webcam on a specific machine outside of schools network a little far fetched unless you had some pretty elaborate software or pretty serious intent (Like a warrant).
    While you’re on campus and on the campus network your machine is given a specific id (ip address) and we can look at what your doing all day long (but not necessarily through the webcam). As soon as you go home and plug in your machine and go online it’s given another unique id from your service provider and unless we knew that exact id we wouldn’t be able to access your machine. If this actually went down while they were at home it’s beyond criminal. So I’d like to know how they did this.

    1. dprendergast,

      It’s actually very simple. You don’t contact the laptop. The laptop phones home and tells you where it is. After all your server’s DNS name doesn’t change.

      So the laptop phones home and maybe even uses UPNP to open up the ports on the home router. Or the laptop phones home, see’s a view request and then initiates the connection (making a firewall pointless on the home router).

      This is simple stuff really. I have free backup software that works this way.

    2. dprendergast – I could see it happening in two ways. One, the webcam is always on, recording, and the school is able to access this data when the laptop is on their network. Or, more likely, there is a program on the laptop that logs the computer on to the school’s network whenever it is connected to the internet, ala VPN or similar tech, giving the school’s IT dept access to its resources.

      What is troublesome to me about this story is that it was instigated because the school punished a student for “improper behavior in his home”. What business does the school have disciplining my kid for what he does at home? I’ll handle that, thanks.

    3. Pretty elaborate software?

      I would imagine something that starts when the OS starts, calls home, and waits for the “take a picture with the webcam” trigger could be written in a few hours by a lot of the people reading this site.

      On a Mac, the built-in cameras can be controlled via the command line. That’s half an hour’s work away from a cronjob to email a photo from the webcam once every hour.

      I can’t say I know how they did it, but the implementation could be far from elaborate.

    4. “Having been a school IT manager for years I find the fact that you would be able to enable a webcam on a specific machine outside of schools network a little far fetched unless you had some pretty elaborate software or pretty serious intent (Like a warrant).”

      Easy: sleeper software that phones home and waits to send you the images as you request them. Exactly the same concept as a botnet, in fact.

    5. @dprendergast: You need to catch up to late 20th-century networking tech. Obviously, the laptop could have a background process that “phones home” and TELLS the server what its IP address is.

    6. As a developer, I can think of a number of different ways to do this. Probably the easiest, would be to have the machines “call home” whenever they are connected to a network. Then there is a user interface, that ties the associated MAC ADDRESS to the student’s information so I can search by student name and remotely activate the system. Since the initial connection was instantiated from the laptop, it would not even set off any firewalls.

    7. >>So I’d like to know how they did this.

      My guess would be that they installed something like LogMeIn running in a mode that allowed them to connect to the PC without notification of the user.

    8. dprendergast —

      Zombie botnets run on software that does all of this, and more. As a school IT manager, you should study up on this. High school kids are not good at computer hygiene; I’d imagine you have a full time job keeping the school computers free of viruses, malware, spyware, and just plain crap.

      In this case, I would bet that the school’s servers have some gen-yoo-wine child pornography on them. I’d also bet that some of the admins’ personal machines also have kiddy porn on them. Nothing will happen to them, of course; they are From The Government and they’re doing it to Protect the Children.

    9. This is pretty easy for some normal school lab machine administration software. Netsupport Manager is trivial to deploy such that as long as the computer can get onto the Internet, the school would be able to remotely control the computer. You would just set it up in using a Netsupport Gateway, which is the normal way to set it up in larger environments anyway.

    10. it’s called a VPN, and if connecting to it is part of the boot process, you end up on the school’s network. My work laptop does this as part of the login process. No connection to VPN = no connection to internet. Of course, I can work offline…

    11. Easy. There is a process (application) that phone’s home and checks for commands. Ever hear of bot networks? This is how they work too!

    12. If the laptop is set up with a VPN connection, then even at home, it would effectively still be on the school network. If you really are a school IT person, I’m not impressed with the caliber of people they are hiring.

    13. Actually, remotely controlling a computer — even once it has left your network — is quite simple. Trojans like BackOrifice and NetBus could do this more than 10 years ago. When the computer is online, they connect to a central server (usually an IRC channel) and advertise their presence, then they would await commands. Among them was the ability to grab screen captures, webcam pictures, and record audio.

      In the enterprise world, such programs are termed remote administration tools (RAT). Simple examples are VNC and Remote Desktop, but more advanced RATs will give you access to much more. To access anywhere in the world, you can use dynamic DNS services, or you can have your tool login to a central server (GoToMyPC does this; it even works routers that block incoming connections).

      The technology is simple and straightforward. When I was young and stupid, I once wrote a trojan script for a popular IRC client that could do all of this and more. Nefarious hackers use similar tricks. I have no doubt the school division could purchase any of a number of programs that would give them this ability.

    14. I was wondering how the school got their home i.p. address, too. If they logged in to school computers from home for any reason then someone from school could easily get their i.p. address.

    15. The school district’s website says the software was to track lost or stolen laptops, and it has now been disabled.

      It sounds like the software was installed for an appropriate reason, and then someone abused it, because they could. People need to go to jail for this. Being enrolled in school should not mean giving up all human rights.

    16. Actually, if the software is of the “call home” variety it doesn’t matter where you log in from, if you have a connection to the ‘net it will go and connect to it’s control center.

      Either that or it takes regular snaps with the webcam and e-mails them off to a certain email address.

      Doesn’t even require rocket science type spyware.

  63. @BubblesUp

    How do you know the IT teacher hasn’t been the one doing illicit monitoring?

    The “acceptable use policy” you had to sign probably gives them similar rights. Distribute this article to all the parents at the school…. make print outs. Even if it is not being abused now, you need to make sure that continues. (And buy putty.)
    This type of thing is a horrible invasion of privacy already, when government officials believe they have the right to do this. The next step, and you KNOW it is going to be happening, is the undiscovered pedophile using this technology without “official” sanction.

    This is so bad.

    And I grouse about my kid’s High School outlawing even opening a cel phone in school because the school is so techno-phobic (so students can’t use the cel phone pda features like calendering etc.)

    This is worse. Much MUCH worse. Is that a death penalty state I wonder?

  64. How is this any different from installing a hidden camera in a students bedroom. Whoever came up with this idea needs to do some hard time and I suspect may possibly be a paedophile. Incredible stuff.

  65. @DavidHHH – they activated the webcam and observed the students at home.

    What they could have seen that would have been of interest is irrelevant, as administrators had no right to use this feature when students were not on school grounds and had reasonable expectations of privacy.

  66. My 5yo used to ask me why I put a bag over the webcam and pushed it behind the monitor when we weren’t using it to skype. I always told him “because bad people can use it to watch us.” And worried about whether I was teaching him to be overly paranoid.

    Now I know to never let him use a school-provided computer outside of school.

  67. @dprendergast: How do they do this?

    Run a vpn tunnel back to the school. Easy, trivial, and allows you to track each machine, in case it’s stolen or misused (at least until it’s wiped.)

    It would also allow control of the machine via your choice of sofware.

  68. That is typical of government and large organizations.
    Step 1: come up with a sustainable argument that any usage of the organizations resources should and can be monitored
    Step 2: monitor those resources in a non-disclosed way and disallow tampering
    Step 3: require that the schools resources be used off campus

    The government does not make a habit of giving up power or ability. This kind of thing needs to to be so well published and made to look despicable that the gov will have no choice but to recant

  69. And I thought it was bad that office cubicles were set up with the monitor facing the aisle.

    What’s the legitimate purpose of spying on someone this way? When I was in school faculty could see what we were doing in school, and what we did at home was our own business.

    I hope the kids who know about Linux are teaching the other kids how to boot their laptops from a Knoppix live cd.

    So did this kid get caught doing a bong or having a wank?

  70. I work for a public school district IT department. I simply cannot imagine a scenario where I would be asked to participate in this sort of thing without a wire-tapping warrant. “Improper behavior in his home”? None of our business. Illegal behavior is another matter, but that’s wiretapping-warrant territory.

    I predict firings, and possible criminal charges.

  71. Sounds like FELONY wire tapping.

    So, when are the responsible individuals being arrested???

    Oh yeah, never, they are government stooges and the government doesn’t arrest its own thugs…

  72. I am also wondering if the student took a picture at home intentionally, which the school later found on his laptop, and punished him for that. Meanwhile the student/parent cried afoul and twisted the truth.

    Also i imagined the school probably covered itself in the agreement for being issues a laptop saying something like “we are allowed access to all software and hardware of the laptop at all times for any reason”

    If they really were remotely monitoring via webcam, these administrators are completely idiotic, and deserve to be a laughingstock of the country for ever thinking it was gonna fly. Regardless of if they put it in the agreement.

  73. Perhaps the student in question was inappropriately gleeful whilst posting to his “My Teachers Suck” Facebook Rant Station. That’ll learn ’em!

    (Kidding, obviously. News like this makes yesterday’s story so incredibly tame in comparison. This is some scary shit.)

  74. What they do in school is the districts business, there is a law called CIPA. Outside of school though, that is just wrong.

  75. you wanted techno-fascism, you got it. dont try to act like “the law” is going to stop hierarchical institutions from using tools to keep order.

  76. I am not sure what the district was thinking. The district’s actions are a serious privacy violation. Not only does a student have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their home, but the overt actions taken by the school are egregious. No student or parent would ever expect the school to activate a student’s webcam outside of school, and even during school hours in most cases. Moreover, the district should not be permitted to discipline a student for actions taken outside of school that do not pose any imminent harm to teachers, other students, or do not disrupt the school day. Lower Merion, in my opinion, has a serious problem on their hands.

  77. Schools act “in loco parentis” to raise the child, and are responsible for the child behaving properly when at school. But it is not the school’s job to control their behavior when their parents are in the same house.

  78. While I agree covertly using the a camera is probably way over the line, monitoring the content is completely logical if the laptop is owned by the school, and if the email accounts are hosted by the school. If the devices belong to the school district and are being loaned to the student the district is probably still responsible for the content, and in general using proxies is meant to hide usage that would go against the schools Acceptable Use policy. I think its misconception here trying to make any kind of filtering a big bad privacy issue, it just shouldnt be used to monitor beyond the realm of school use.

    1. It IS a big bad privacy issue.

      Schools are charged with providing an education. Nothing that happens off site is any of their business. I have problems with the psychology of spying on kids at school as well.

      I don’t care if it is the school’s equipment. Acceptable use policy?
      What do they think they are going to prevent?

      In my pre-historic school days we were given school owned textbooks for use during the year. Yet the school administration did not demand copies of our house keys so they could show up unannounced and let themselves in to our bedrooms to make sure we weren’t writing in the margins.

      A laptop is a piece of plastic that will be obsolete/unsupported trash in a few short years. Children are human beings.

      If you want to create a trustworthy child you must first trust them. Yes, they will misbehave occasionally at which point they learn the consequences. I say that as the mother of an occasionally hormonally crabby teen who is also an entirely trustworthy young adult.

      If kids go on MySpace who cares as long as they do their homework first. I applaud the ingenuity of those who can get around the administrator’s filters. It is not the job of school administrators to control the students, but to provide a safe learning space. This does not.

      If they still don’t get the issue, lets get cameras mounted in these school administrator’s bedrooms and bathrooms with a live online feed.

  79. I bet these same administrators complain that the school plays too big a role in the kids’ educations and the parents don’t do enough. And yet the parents aren’t spying on the teachers. This stuff is sick and someone needs to lose his/her job.

  80. wow.. What is the point of privacy anymore. The school should not put a webcam on the computer to watch the kids at their home, that is just wrong. There is no way that is legal, and it is the biggest invasion of privacy. The parents should take care of watching their kids, not the school.

  81. While I agree that anything is possible the article implied that school officials were watching this stuff in real time. We were all Macintosh based and 99% of the machines never left the building and the few that did had software(deep freeze) on them that would erase anything saved once you restarted. I suppose some people could and would do this, we just never had the time nor the intent. I have a nine year old daughter and if I discovered they were doing this , after a monumental ass whoopin, the lawsuit would be legendary plus some serious jail time.

    1. It’s really not hard to do. As the previous poster mentioned, there are ways to do this from the command line. his example was using a cron task to snap a picture, but you can do it with remote connections and live feeds too. And if you know your stuff, you can keep these processes out of the dock. The only thing that would tip them off is that the green LED on the camera lights up when it’s active, and that’s a hardware thing. There’s no way to disable that. But oddly enough, one of the students at the school commented on another site that:

      “I’ve heard people that’ve said that the green light on their webcams have gone on randomly, and many people suspected this. My friend actually kept a post-it note on his camera, and I did for awhile, too. I don’t have anything to hide from them, and I use my netbook for crap that I shouldn’t be doing on my school computer… Because they at least log where you’re going, of course. I’m not really surprised this was happening… But I’m sure other people in the school are completely freaked out.”

      So the students were already suspicious because of the green LED. and it also sounds like it was arbitrary, and not an “always on” thing either. So not only were these students being covertly recorded, but this implies that they were being targeted as well.

      No way other way to describe other than seriously messed up. Incidentally, if you’re looking for another school IT job, this one might be hiring soon.

  82. Not only is this bad, it is very illegal according to anti-wiretapping laws. The FBI should be contacting them soon. Reeeeeeeally illegal to do this, they are in trouble if the government decides to prosecute.

  83. I don’t get the concept.

    Regardless of where my child goes to school, how does anyone has a right to record what’s going on in our home?!
    (unless they have a court order or my specific consent to do so)


    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    That they figured out a way to do it remotely and by having you sign a ‘consent’ form does not make it right.

    Teachers should know better….

  85. Firstly, thank you so much for bringing this to light, Cory. As someone who has a younger brother who relies on his school-issued laptop, this concerns me.

    However, I do have one question in regards to turning on the webcam covertly. I’m not sure about PCs since I don’t use them, but my MacBook Pro has a light that comes on whenever the webcam is in use — is it possible to bypass this and work the webcam without said light?

  86. The people involved here should be due some hefty damages for the pain and mental anguish that being spied on by the officials, but the officials themselves should be tried criminally. Regardless of intent, they have created something that could reasonably used to capture child pornography, and I see no other motive than that for providing students laptops that you can remotely view through like this. If this wasn’t their intent, they would have educated the kids on the dangers of strangers spying in remotely and warned them about proper usage outside the school. It is a free speech violation when they punish kids for facebook postings, but it is a criminal violation of privacy, gross misuse of power, and complete misconduct on the part of these officials when they film students without their knowledge in their homes. They are nothing more than voyeuristic pedophiles and should be treated the same way as anyone else who remotely films people without their knowledge and consent.

  87. This is just plain scary. And this is not just about a confused or rogue IT admin: the school vice-principal used a picture taken in the privacy of the students home to discipline the student. These people (all the people involved, even those just “in the know” and not taking any action) should never be allowed back in any school in any official capacity.

  88. The School categorically denies any use of the cameras for any use other than finding lost or stolen laptops. They believe it goes against everything they stand for as a school district.

    I go to Harriton, a school of LMSD, and one where the kid goes currently.

  89. There is software available that screen captures if a word on a “bad word” list appears on screen, or an image with an “inappropriate” amount of skin tones. This software can run on a machine off the network, and the log of access and screen captures are uploaded to the server when the machine re-connects.

  90. It is a felony of the third degree to intentionally intercept, endeavor to intercept, or get any other person to intercept any wire, electronic, or oral communication without the consent of all the parties. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5703(1).

    Anyone whose communication has been unlawfully intercepted can recover actual damages in the amount of $100 per day of violation or $1,000, whichever is greater, and also can recover punitive damages litigation costs, and attorney fees. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5725.

  91. I attend Lower Merion High School (in 10th grade) and I am worried that the full picture has not come into view. Most children and faculty at the school were aware (via rumors and the light that went on that took pictures) that the student loaned computers could photograph them at anytime, even at home. This article also didn’t mention what Blake was doing. Blake was smoking weed and, according to some of his friends, visiting pornographic websites. When he faced disciplinary action, he sued. I think that it is disturbing my school district can watch us, but I believe that the majority of observation is only done when there is probable cause of criminal activity or child abuse (not sure, that’s what I’ve heard). I think its a bad situation, and the district shouldn’t be able to do this (if they are) but I really think you need to understand what this kid was like. Furthermore, I don’t think this is really about the invasion of privacy but really about a bunch of greedy class action lawyers looking for an easy win and big attorney’s fee. The legal damages of this suit could put our school in a bad situation and jeopardize our educational future. I hope that the two parties can solve their problems without a cash settlement or other price to the school district.

    1. //but I really think you need to understand what this kid was like.//

      And that the kid smoked weed and viewed porn somehow validates the school’s invasion of his privacy because? I hate to tell you this kid, but it’s a safe bet that at high school age most male kids probably do either of those two things.

    2. “I think that it is disturbing my school district can watch us, but I believe that the majority of observation is only done when there is probable cause of criminal activity or child abuse (not sure, that’s what I’ve heard).”

      That doesn’t matter, not in the slightest. Your school administration is not a police organization (as much as they’d like to think so). If they have suspicions of criminal activity, it is neither up to them to try to enforce them, NOR is it their right to invade someone’s privacy in order to look for evidence. They simply don’t have that right.

    3. OK I could see and agree to something that did not involve a large $$ lawsuit. BUT only if it DID involve the principal and any teachers that new about this being held criminally liable. Depending on how involved they were the teachers and principal should be considered Sex offenders , also its the same thing as me sneaking into your house and installing a hidden camera. There should be some jail time and the involved should NEVER be allowed to work near kids again

    4. It doesn’t matter if the kid deserved to be punished or not, that’s not the point. The point is that he was being spied on without a warrant or parental permission. If the school can do this because Blake was a pothead and a jerk and it’s acceptable then what’s to stop, say, the government from saying, ‘We’re tossing the Constitution because in order to catch terrorists everyone’s rights needs to—” Wait. Oh yeah, we did that already. What I want to know is what kind of future are we cultivating? Today’s kids have no rights, have to wear uniforms, have no opportunity for self-expression, have no arts or music classes–is this Generation Z for Zombie?

  92. Everybody calm down, and read the complaint.

    This is based on two things:
    – The improper behavior report was based on a picture that the kid took using the webcam and left on the hard drive of his school issued laptop. Which the school can search if it wants to. They probably contacted the parents as a courtesy.

    – The parent then was told that the school can activate the webcab when they please.

    That’s it? Thats the basis for a class action lawsuit?
    There’s no evidence that the school activated the webcam of a school-issued laptop outside of school grounds. There’s no evidence that the school is even capable of activating the webcam outside of school grounds. Hell, there’s no evidence that they ever activated a webcam inside the school, although they do have the authority.

    I mean, what’s the basis for the headline “School used student laptop webcams to spy on them at school and home”? Nothing, as far as I can see. Anybody care to explain this?

    1. Oi. Replaying to: Anonymous | #148 | 12:41 on Thu, Feb.18

      “The issue came to light when the Robbins’s child was disciplined for “improper behavior in his home” and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence.”

      Did you even read the article before commenting?

    2. @Anonymous #148

      You state:
      “- The improper behavior report was based on a picture that the kid took using the webcam and left on the hard drive of his school issued laptop. {snip}”

      Source please?

      The rest of your comment is conjecture based on the truth value of the statement I have quoted above.

      How do you know the basis of the improper behavior report?

      1. Hmm.
        Well, the complaint says:

        “…informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District.”

        Yeah, yeah, you can’t “prove” much from this. But common sense would dictate that they found a pic of him doing something illegal on the school issued computer. I have no idea what this was, he was probably smoking dope or something. I don’t know exactly what “improper behavior” would be for a high school student, I doubt he was cheating on his taxes.

        Once the school finds this, what do they do? They probably can’t ignore it.

        And, no, I can’t prove this. But what else could realistically have happened?

    3. also @Anonymous #148
      Actually if you read the complaint itself it clearly states that the school official confirmed that the webcam was activated remotely and the picture was taken then. Not that the kid took the picture himself and just left it on the computer.
      Completely different situation.

  93. Any acceptable use policy the parents signed is not going to over rule state and federal laws.

    School: “But the parents said we could spy on their children!”

    Cops: “They can’t authorize you to take naked photos of children, idiot.”

  94. @Cory,

    Didn’t you write about this in LITTLE BROTHER? Isn’t that work copyrighted? IANAL, but this seems like they are using your copyrighted material. You might seek legal advise for a suit of your own against this school district. The heirs of George Orwell’s estate might also get involved with their own suit. Hijinks ensue

    Michael Vilain
    fan of LITTLE BROTHER!

  95. Problem: Possible spying via integrated laptop webcam.

    Solution: 1000 grit sandpaper. Apply liberally to webcam lens.

    Problem solved.

    That’s still creepy as hell.

  96. pretty sure they have to be nekkid to be porno. if they are changing and they do reveal themselves… well.. then i want to say yes, especially since it’s from a voyeuristic p.o.v. and has no artistic quality that could redeem it.

  97. My guess is that notification is buried in a six-page singlespaced all-caps EULA that the kids were required to sign when they signed out the machines. That’ll be their defense. I hope it doesn’t hold up.

  98. I can only think of one reason that would even be remotely justifiable for remote camera access off school property: to capture child abuse. Can students refuse to use school laptops if they have this intrusive capability? Once the computer leaves the school property, it should not have any remote monitoring capacity outside of something like a Lo-jack chip. Just because the school can do this doesn’t mean they should, but it seems they intend to try nonetheless :(

  99. I bought my first laptop through my high school. It included some software that allowed the IT folks to watch your computer without your knowledge, a crappy enterprise-grade anti-virus software that required a password to disable, and a login name for ITS.

    I, of course, disabled most of these things. However, most of my peers didn’t have the knowledge to modify the MD5 hash of the antivirus password to allow them to disable it or anything. It was kind of ridiculous.

    And then they started censoring our AIM messages — anything that contained the word “proxy” got mysteriously dropped. That sucked.

  100. hi, i go to the school who is doing this, and i’m really freaked out by this. we did sign an agreement at the beginning of the year, but as far as i remember it was simply about controlling and monitoring our computers while we were at school, and saying that we could not go on inappropriate sites. they made an announcement today about this at the end of the day and specifically denied this saying they would not and could not do this and that it went against “everything that harriton stands for”. also, i dont think it was masturbation, i heard it was him smoking pot. this is really creepy, and hopefully they get whats coming to them, but i doubt that will happen, im guessing that there will be a settlement and it will never see a courtment.

  101. Okay so if you read the lawsuit application, you’ll find a blurb about the new computers that are given to the students. It mentions “all students will have 24/7 access to school resources.”

    I’m willing to bet that:

    A) The web cam can be remotely activated and viewed, either a snapshot or video, and this is probably OK at school without privacy concerns and may actually be beneficial in some cases.

    B) The computers are set up to automatically connect to the school network, probably via a VPN connection, when connected to the Internet so that the student can access all of the online resources within the school computer system

    C) As an extension, no matter where you are, if you’re connected to the VPN, your computer is a part of the school network and so can be managed remotely.

    D) It was probably never the intention of the system administrators, or faculty, to have access to video or photos from the home. It just turned out that way because of the VPN.

    E) This is where they went wrong. Instead of reporting to the system administrators that this was possible, or creating a rule against it or disclosing it or *something* – they just spied on kids at home. Wrong move. I can’t believe the balls on Matsko for actually punishing a kid for doing something at home. My guess is that this wasn’t masturbation, rather probably smoking pot or something like that.

    So, you can’t exactly vilify the entire faculty, but you sure as hell should vilify the people that KNEW this was possible, did nothing about it, and even abused the system.

  102. i go to this school if this true then im scared because i left my computer open and i change in front of it

  103. As a journalist, I’m fascinated by the viral propagation of the story.

    It was on boingboing late last night. There was also a wikipedia entry early this morning. It’s interesting that it surfaced for the first time a week after it was filed.

    It strikes me that the students at the high school in question may be using the web to propagate awareness of the lawsuit in a work-around of Pennsylvania’s case law that holds an attorney may be sued for defamation for simply providing a copy of a complaint to members of the news media. It’s no stretch to imagine that the lawyers who filed this suit may be fearful of a defamation suit if they announced it to the media directly.

    Since this popped up on boingboing, at least two Philadelphia area “mainstream,” or more accurately, “traditional” news outlets have reported on it. Expect CNN to be doing a remote from the snowy lanes of Rosemont, Pa., tomorrow.

    Kudos to you, Roland, whoever you are.

  104. A small piece of electrical tape over the camera lense would provide simple solution to stopping the extracurricular voyeurs. Or better yet, download any one of a number of Linux Live-CDs ( and boot from it into a free operating system that is totally functional.

  105. If you’re a student in such a school, you should immediately take the following steps to protect your privacy (this is what I would advice my two nieces if they ever ran into such an administration):

    1) Pretend to not know about the issue. Don’t give the administration any idea you’re on to them.

    2) Whenever you arrive home, yank the laptop battery and stow the laptop in a dark closet far from your living areas where it can’t “hear” or “see” anything. Make sure the laptop is never energized when it’s in your home. Consider it a dirty spy!

    4) If they require you to do your homework on the laptop, do it in the public library on the way home with the power cord plugged in to get a quick charge. Make sure you turn the laptop off when you’re done (and yank the battery!).

    5) Most important of ALL: Make your parents get you your OWN computer, for free and unfettered use at home! Never EVER use your issued computer for anything except your schoolwork. I would NEVER want my kid to use an issued computer; I would never trust it with anything. We do not live in East Germany and we don’t have to put up with Stasi.


    A) Your school can’t find out anything about you using your laptop. If they DO try to check you out, you end up looking like a model student who only uses his laptop for school and turns it off when he’s not using it.

    B) You get to preserve your freedom and privacy when you’re off school grounds. Also, your principal can’t try to get your Facebook password from whatever sniffers they’ve put on the laptop. You’ve stopped any shenanigans cold.

  106. After having read the complaint, I have to say that I think two of the three complaints should probably be thrown out.
    1) unlawful interception of electronic communications.
    Which communication was intercepted? The student wasn’t communicating with anyone, and if downloading a file that you created is an unlawful interception, then that same law could be used to charge you when you download your mail. Creationg the picture file may have been unlawful, but once crreated, sending it somewhere is perfectly legal.
    2) unauthorized access to a computer.
    The question here is who owns the computer? If the computer was given to the student with no expectation of it being returned, then it’s the student’s computer, and the access is probably unlawful. On the other hand, if the student is expected to return the computer to the school at some point, then it’s the school’s computer, not the student’s, and the school certainly has permission to access their own property. This is the same legal situation that permits employers to install monitoring software on employee computers.
    3) invasion ofprivacy.
    This is the big item. If it can be proven in court that the monitoring occured, then the person doing the monitoring as well as everyone else involved in monitoring or approving the monitoring should be facing jail time as well as financial penalties.

    What I’d really like to see is anyone convicted of such breach of trust banned from ever holding any public position, be it as an elected politician or as an appointed public servant. I’m not going to hold my brreath waiting for that one though.

  107. If you are truly insecure about having your webcam on, then simply disable the device driver! Failing that just close the laptop lid.

  108. To those comparing this to the school presented on Frontline’s Digital Nation…this is *not* the same thing.

    On that program they were only watching the kids *IN* school.

    It was also a different school (it was in the Bronx).

    I think administrators certainly have a right to regulate some aspects of how students use school-issued laptops, but to use the laptops to pry into the student’s personal lives is unacceptable and frankly, insane.

  109. i think the real reason why the laptops can be remotely accessed needs to come to light as the key issue. who originally proposed the idea? how did this idea get developed and refined? who signed the checks from the school budget? who built them? these details and more need to become extra public knowledge.

    and to the kids from the high school in question: suck it up for now. school administrators and teachers have been interfering in kids’ lives (home and other) since the idea of school was invented. the lawsuit won’t change the minds of the old guard who run your school district. if anything, it will show them what NOT to do for next attempt. rather than just do the job an teach, they choose tell others how to live as well. its nothing new in the US and it will not change.
    just learn from this incident, protect yourselves and your minds, squeeze what you can out of them for education. if you treat school and your teachers as basic tools and nothing more, your lives in high school will breeze by.

    1. As a mother of a quite lazy teenager, I can tell that school teachers are trying their hardest to inspire, help and motivate kids. I don’t think they deserve the “tool” label. Some kids do.

      Now, if you the camera is on, one could normally expect being watched. If you don’t like being watched, turn off the camera.. right?

      I don’t believe school was “spying”, I believe that kid posted his disgusting photo intentionally. Then when he was caught he lied that school “watched” him. His parents, instead of punishing him, decided to make some money on it. Now he’s having fun watching his parents and dirty lawyers scrutinizing school. You see, our society likes money, has very little morals and not used to think at all. And it’s counted as a perfectly smart behaviour.

  110. This was JUST (2/18/2010 @ 4:54 ET) posted on the Lower Merion School District website:

    Initial response regarding LMSD ‘invasion of privacy’ allegation

    Last year, our district became one of the first school systems in the United States to provide laptop computers to all high school students. This initiative has been well received and has provided educational benefits to our students.

    The District is dedicated to protecting and promoting student privacy. The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today.

    We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families.The allegations are counter to everything that we stand for as a school and a community. We are reviewing the matter and will provide an additional update as soon as information becomes available.

  111. Minnesota Virtual Academy sent us a webcam for our daughter’s personal computer. They required the webcam for weekly meetings with the teacher. When I objected based on privacy grounds, they relented.

    I wondered how many others families thought nothing sinister about letting the state put a camera in their homes.

  112. 1) A company (or school) Acceptable Use Policy of equipment that they own does not have location limitations.
    They own the equipment, they trust you to use it the way that is spelled out – follow the rules and there is no issue.
    2) Formatting (or wiping) the drive of equipment you do not own will not do you much good if you cannot reload it.
    Also with government owned equipment it is most likely a low class felony (and an admission of wrong doing that will label you as a person ‘of interest’)
    3) If the BIOS is not protected you CAN shut off the internal mic and web cam so the OS cannot have access to it.
    Most secure equipment is protected but not all.
    4) Many ‘kids’ are way more tech savvy than these readers give them credit for. Some may have already used their cell phones for things that would land them in prison too. They get away with it until caught for something else and the phone gets inspected – a teen sending another teen ‘inappropriate’ photos is still child porn regardless of intent.
    5) What makes any one thing that the government is not monitoring you already? If your computer has a mic and / or camera attached what makes any one think that it is not possible that they are actually being watched too? Internet communications are heavily monitored and getting tighter all the time. The sheeple have told the government that we want to be safe – take care of us…
    …and the government has been working to that end. Take away your rights (because you asked us to, more or less) to keep you safe.
    6) I won’t go into what software can do this but it is not spyware! It is legitimate software that can even be used for free, although they may have the paid version that has way richer feature set. We have used it to remote to machines that are on the internet all over the world. It needs to be setup ahead of time but after that if it is on the internet and we get a call for support it is a snap! Even our remote users love it (without it they would be on their own)
    7) In reply to the comment “Sounds like FELONY wire tapping.) it isn’t if they gave you the phone!
    8) Yes the machine can phone home when connected to the internet – What do you think Windows boxes do? Win 7 will phone home quarterly to verify activation (allegedly) your cell phone is broadcasting all the time to multiple towers – where do you think those bars come from? The location of you cell phone is known to within a relatively short distance.

    To be safe(er) shut it off; disconnect the internet cable, shut off that wireless internet (that you are sharing with everyone in the neighborhood). Sounds like a lot more cries to have someone else keep you safe – how many more rights are you willing to give up?

  113. The people responsible for this should be jailed as child pornographers and forced to register as sex offenders — one idiotic heavy-handed government policy defeating another.

    We currently live in a place where you can go to jail for 15 years for collecting comic books depicting (fictional, cartoon) child porn. I imagine the penalties should be somewhat more severe in this case?

  114. This is unacceptable behavior. If I catch school officials snooping on my children AT HOME, they will see me in court.

  115. This is really a tough situation on both sides. Once someone from the school saw something illegal going on via a webcam, they had to act on it. To not act on it would have been both ethicly wrong and possibly a legal liablility for the school. We don’t know for sure why the school was using the monitoring software while the student was not in school. It’s possible the student was at home during regular school hours and as another poster mentioned, someone could have been performing “normal monitoring” of the students laptop activities in-class to ensure they where not goofing off. It’s very probable the person doing the monitoring was not aware the student was not in class at that time. Once they saw him smoking pot or whatever he was doing, they had to act.

    On the other hand, obviously they should be required to let the kids know they had this capability from the start. It’s not a deterrent unless people know they can do this. It’s also the typical lesson in 1984. Put a post-it over your wecam and mic hole when they’re not in use. People are so much more trusting of technology these days and don’t give it a skeptical thought at all. And even when people do think skeptically, they tend to give up and just say “they can already monitor me anyway, I can’t stop it”. Way to go you defeatest.

    There is one ray of hope however. Since the software was (presumably) never mentioned in anything the students signed when receiving the laptops, then they can’t stipulate it’s against school policies to remove or block it.

    To those that answer the monitoring problem with “format C”, well good luck with that. While schools are normally technologically inept, eventually they will flag you for not running the “standard build” and most likely either the student receives a citation or gives up the laptop if they refuse to be monitored. The solution is subterfuge in these cases sadly. I personally have worked in corporate environments where my laptop’s every change was being monitored. It started out as “Y2K compliance checks” and turned into a background process that audited every program we ran and which sites we visited, among other metrics. It was easy to disable the software, but if your laptop didn’t dial home once a month and report all the collected data your manager got a nastygram and we where forced to get it “taken care of”. The software started out as third party but eventually someone wrote their own version in-house with added capabilities after Y2K came and went. It used an encrypted config file for the ftp credentials. Eventually I snarfed the ftp credentials with a pcap dump, this also allowed me to verify the ftp site being sent the data. I added that site to my hosts file for and ran an ftp server on my host allowing the software to upload it’s payload to my own laptop. I could parse out the information I deemed too sensitive for “the firm” and then ran a script to upload my modified payload to the real site. Oh yes, the person running this service inside the company also used the ftp server for their own personal use, I found plenty of their porn they had stored there. I never had a chance to do anything interesting beyond this with what I found before I left that company. But it goes to show you, someone has to watch the watchers.

  116. It’s not only an active camera that is the problem.

    There is key logger software that will not only log all the keys you press but can also capture periodic screen shots at intervals you set. That whole stream can then be reviewed and reproduced at the administrators option. There are a number of companies that use such software. Unsure if it is being used in situations like this but there is no reason why it could not be.

  117. All this because a teenager smoked weed in his bedroom? Bloody hell, it’s a miracle the seas didn’t boil and blood rain fom the skies. Mind you, when I was a teenager, school was better for a smoke than home, more room to lie out on the sports pitch.

  118. The school is massively out-of-bounds: in loco parentis only applies during school hours and is stipulated in such a way that it applies to activities that may be sponsored by the school but take place off school grounds.

    There is no way it’s applicable here: the student was at home [presumably with his family]. Schools have not and do not have direct authority over students at home. They may place limitations on school property used (e.g., no reselling public school textbooks), but even that rationale does not extend to the remote activation of a web cam connected to a school-issued laptop. Further, unless activity in the home is genuinely in violation of school policy (e.g., drug use) there are no grounds for in-school penalty.

    Sue’em, fire the administrators, the IT staff, and kick the school board in the pants. Hard.

  119. Wow, step 1 of getting a laptop.. Reformat it! Then again, that’s probably against the rules for the school district laptops.

  120. Maybe if parents stopped expecting schools to solve problems that occurred in their homes (like kids stalking each other on MySpace, or harrassing each other over the internet) and then suing them for not solving the problems, schools wouldn’t overreact and monitor every aspect of students’ lives.

    I don’t support what this school has done, but quite frankly, I think this is a problem that society has created – we sue schools for not being ever-vigilant and then are upset at how this makes schools operate?

    I can see it now – if they DON’T monitor the kids and one of them sends something inappropriate out on a school-issued laptop, you already know the parents will sue the school – but if the school monitors the equipment, they are spies?

    This is a no-win situation all around.

  121. lol “We did it for stolen laptops. honestly. except the kid that you know, we told that we spied on”.

    I smell a huge lawsuit and look forward to the school being crushed, or at least those involved fired.

  122. The Vice Principal and everyone else involved should be prosecuted for promulgating child pornography. They were purposefully taking pictures of kids without their knowledge, in their homes, and the fact that some of them would have the laptops in their rooms and be in various states of undress is totally inevitable and totally obvious – and therefore this was clearly deliberate.

    Every single person who knew about and permitted covert surveillance of people in their own homes should be in prison and put on a sex offenders list, because that’s what they are.

  123. That is seriously creepy. Watching kids at home? That’s a huge invasion of privacy! And what gets me (past the obviously WRONG) is the fact that the Vice Principal used the footage to disciple a child! Come on! Once you’re out of school and off of school property, the school has no right to punish you for anything you do! Nor should they even have a say in what you do! (past homework, which they can only encourage or fail you for). It’s the parents job to keep the kid in line in the home hours of the day, not the schools!!!

  124. Doesn’t anyone find it disturbing that a public school official finds it necessary to discipline a child for what they are doing in their own home?

    When did we decide to let the government run schools raise our children? Aren’t there parental rights (and responsibilities)? any more?

  125. you can have software ‘phone home’ as is done with dynamic DNS software (hosing web sites on a dynamic ip that changes or like security software that phones home, or bot’s, I’m sure if i looked i could find software on sourceforge to do this.

  126. Kids, don’t listen to these guys telling you to wipe the hard drive. First, you could mess some stuff up and then you won’t have a laptop. Second, those laptops are school property, and if you mess with the software installed on it, they could potentially fine your parents the entire cost of the laptop plus extra fees.

    This is insanity, and it shouldn’t be happening, but telling the kids to deface the property they are personally accountable for isn’t a solution either.

  127. From the School District’s Technology Plan:

    “All students will learn and practice technology skills and ethical use of technologies that will prepare them for the 21st century workplace and society.”

    mission accomplished.

  128. The school district reports the feature as a means to locate lost or stolen laptops. The feature was not used to discipline children, and the judge must take into account that the students may have found a way to exploit a multi-million dollar opportunity. School districts often are sued for millions and a crafty student may be at the source of this. I do hope that the allegation was just that though.

  129. I know its not really relevant , but i wonder what the offense was that the school would risk such a lawsuit. I am sure they no longer think it was worth it.

  130. WTF??? What kind of world do we live in where schools feel they have the right to spy on students in their homes? What students do on their own time is not the business of schools.

  131. The most hilarious thing about this is that unless it was done very well (and almost nothing in software and security ever is) it is probably easy enough for ANYONE to access the camera.

  132. Regardless of whether the student took the picture or the school remotely activated the camera, the previous comments seem to imply that the kid was caught smoking weed by the photographic evidence. Before you attack the kid on that are ya sure that’s weed based on a picture? Tricky ground to be sure. Ya might be acting stoned or looking stoned, but smoking something… well who knows what it is, and a picture doesn’t prove what the substance is.

    Second VERY scary privacy implications. If the school remotely activated the camera after school hours and were monitoring the kid at home… then that raises all sorts of questions what were they doing monitoring this kid after hours… they wouldn’t be assuming the kid is at school so it’s a conscious effort to monitor the kid at home. How many other times are they doing this? How would they even justify it amongst themselves as that it was ok to do? Home is the parents responsibility.

    Work places monitor their employees the same way when they are at work, and even give out work laptops to work at home, but this wouldn’t fly even if this was XYZ company caught employee doing something at home on their own time in their own home. And I think we need to keep that in mind and hold the kid to the same standard. Your own time, your own business.

    And you kids that go to this school, the nature of this is that the school will try and cover their butt because the media is involved and they got caught, and then justify it by showing that they caught the kid doing something wrong, so therefore they were right to spy. But the ends don’t justify the means. I bet most people out there do a few wrong things every day, but they don’t get caught because nobody is spying on them 24/7. The kid should be no different.

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    1. This is a lie. There is no such information on the website. This person has posted this exact message on multiple threads. Smacks of dishonesty.

    2. “after further reading on the School District website, it appears this story is a gross distortion and misrepresentation. The webcam security feature was activated only once at the request of the student who owned the laptop, which had been stolen.”

      It most certainly does not say that, and also I have a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you.

    3. I’ve seen this cut & paste on this same story at other sites.

      Now, who would be interested in spinning the story this way…
      A search on IP would probably be interesting here…

  134. Tell me under what conditions a student could be using a proxy site, avoiding any content filtering put in place by the school district, that would be considered “educational”.

    1. Tell me under what conditions a student could be using a proxy site, avoiding any content filtering put in place by the school district, that would be considered “educational”.

      Learning how to use a proxy to get around content filtering, of course.

      But I kid. Content filtering is a horribly ineffective tool which does not provide the desired solution but does add considerably to the support people’s burden.

  135. Simple. All the school has to do is claim it’s an anti-terrorism measure. Any student who turns off his laptop while undressing is a potential jihadist.

  136. The real question for all of those who have commented by stating that a reinstall/wipe is the best option is this:

    What makes you think the school won’t notice the sudden lack of software on their laptops.

    They do have to return the laptops eventually you know. And not everyone I know has copies of MAC OSX and such lying around for a re-install, especially in 9th grade.

  137. Just print out an image of goatse and have the camera pointed at that when the computer is not in use. It should give them a nice surprise.

  138. RE: comment #147

    “Blake was smoking weed and, according to some of his friends, visiting pornographic websites.”

    Big fucking deal. Was this during school time or on the grounds of the school? Then it’s none of the school’s business.

  139. ummm wtf.. How is this not illegal? The only thing I can think of is if the school says that its “they’re property”, but still… I just don’t get how this is legal in any way…exp as far as the dressing undressing in front of the computer, many, many people do this kind of thing… Lordy, this is f***ed up..

  140. Can’t the parents press charges against individual instances, as well? What if a credit card number or medical information was captured on video or audio? Wouldn’t medical information be subject to HIPAA rules, etc?

    This is in no way acceptable behavior, and I hope this district is punished to the full extent of the law – including child pornography charges.

  141. @anonymous #47

    I feel really sorry for you. My high school a long time ago was very much like that, the main difference being that in the 1970s the technology to do such things would have been far too expensive for a school and neither laptops nor the commercial Internet existed. However, they would certainly have done what your school is doing if they could have.

    The administration of your school didn’t miss reading 1984. I’m sure they read it very closely; they just drew a very different lesson from it than you, I, and other normal people did. Rather than being horrified, they salivated at the prospect.

  142. Of course, on the positive side, the District will be able to turn around and sue their lawyers for malpractice…

  143. If you are interested in the school’s side of the story, read this:

    It appears that:
    (1) The laptop was reported stolen.
    (2) The owner of the laptop activated the camera and took a single photograph, and also took a single screengrab.
    (3) The owner of the laptop then confronted the alleged thief with the evidence (The ‘improper behaviour’ was a polite way of saying ‘theft/use of a stolen laptop’)
    (4) The alleged thief then files a lawsuit against the laptop owner for invasion of privacy.

    If laptop owner wasn’t a school’s IT department – if it was just an individual, what would be your view?

    What if it happened to you? If someone stole your laptop and you had the ability to take a photo with the webcam and use it to try and recover your property .. what would you do?

    If you chose to take the photo, do you think it would be reasonable to get sued for it?

    1. Mac, this sounds like pure speculation; I don’t see anywhere it says that they turned it on at a student’s request. The school’s posting only states the supposed intended use of the cameras.

    2. In my mind, the difference is that students had a right and expectation to privacy. The school is lending them these laptops for their use; any attempt to use that as a way to monitor the student’s home life would be dishonest and unethical.

      However, if somebody steals my laptop, they had no right to it in the first place. They should not expect privacy or anything else. They should expect that I will do anything in my power to trace down that laptop.

      However, the law is quite clear on this. Even the police aren’t allowed to arbitrarily use surveillance and wiretaps to intrude on people, even if they are suspected criminals. In many places, evidence obtained this way can even be dismissed. It’s part of our delicate balancing act between the need to investigate crimes and the need to prevent abuse by investigators.

      So, even if the school had justifiable cause to do this, they likely went afoul of the law. Had the thief themselves taken the picture, and the school found it on their property (the laptop), then it could be argued as reasonable (by the same “plain sight” clause that police can use to collect evidence without a warrant if they happen to otherwise be in a position to observe it). However, they clearly made an attempt to use the laptop as a hidden camera, photographing the thief without his awareness or consent and without a warrant. That’s illegal wiretapping in a nutshell.

    3. Sorry, I don’t buy it for a second. “Improper behavior in his home” just isn’t a plausible euphemism for “stealing school property.” And while some pretty outrageous lawsuits have been filed in the past, I can’t imagine that a class-action lawsuit would be filed if the circumstances were what the school claims they are.

      On the other hand, the fact that the school acquired the ability to spy on the students, even if it was never used, might justify such a lawsuit.

    4. Re: #239. Huh? How did you divine your “facts” from the school’s response? Nothing there claims the laptop had been reported stolen. Nothing there has any details about the disciplinary action. It’s inferred that they deny that ever happened.

  144. I attend Harriton and I can definitely understand why the administrators want to keep such a strong hold on their students; reputation is a huge thing for the district. I mean, I’m thoroughly creeped out (and have put electrical tape over my webcam). Unlike many of the richer students in the district, my family definitely isn’t as well off; we wouldn’t be able to afford computers for both me and my older brother (who also attends Harriton). A laptop is a great tool in aiding me to stay organized and keep up with the demanding schedule of Harriton, and the fact that there’s a great possibility of having the district take away our computers is a little upsetting.

  145. Glad they were caught, I predict this will go all the way to the supreme court, cost Millions of $, probably spawn 2-3 research grants for more $ to study the feasibility if fighting to keep the SW active or to un-install it.

    It is such an invasion of personal rights that the above monies spent are a total waste. This is/was/will always be wrong!
    No ifs, no ands, no buts!

  146. There are a lot of things that I don’t want to see people doing….ewwww. Those of you watching that porn, you may be the one being watched.

  147. I didn’t read through all of the previous comments, so I don’t know if anyone else mentioned this, but, if there is sound being recorded as well as the video, not only is this a violation of privacy, but it is also a violation of the wire tap law.

  148. Mac,

    Read, man, read. The school districts “explanation” just says how they claim the system is supposed to work/why it was set up. It in no way addresses the allegation in the lawsuit: That the vice-principal stated a picture of the kid ON HIS SCHOOL PROVIDED COMPUTER (not a stolen one) was taken that showed the kid (in his own home) engaging in improper conduct.

    In the immediacy of this story, and all its implications, all the district is going to do now is offer a very evasive, craftily worded, and noncommittal statement. This is what they did. Hell, they didn’t even commit to disabling the feature.

    For those of you who don’t know, this is the same district that is also being sued for using racial profiling to determine which kids go to what school.

    They have a pretty strong history of doing whatever they want, whenever they want. This is in part because they have tons of money compared to most districts, and an enormous budget for legal expenses.

    They don’t have to listen to anyone else. They can bully and outspend us into submission.

  149. I currently attend the school in which the incident occurred. Students all around the school are panicking, covering the cameras with tape. Nobody believes the administrations attempts at persuading the students that the accusation is false. I just don’t understand why the assistant principal (the woman who received the photographic evidence) would talk to the student about the issue when they know it is an invasion of privacy/illegal.

  150. To me, the obvious answer is either don’t use school issued laptops, or don’t take them home, or just assume you have no privacy and act accordingly -like turn them off and shut them once the homework is done. I’m not saying the school was acting ethically, just that once we start demanding privacy regulations we’re just opening ourselves up to governmental control of the internet.

  151. @Mac: I see nothing at all in the school district’s press release to indicate that the laptop in question had been stolen. All I see is a whole lot of passive voice weasel-words.

  152. When they were designing the XO-1 laptop, One Laptop Per Child made the conscious decision to have LEDs physically linked to both the camera and microphone so that it was impossible to have either of them active without the child owner of the laptop knowing.

    Now if only kids in the industrialised world could get that sort of care and trust…

  153. Hey Mac, I’m gonna go with the sworn statement over the open web letter.

    And why did they deactivate it if they did nothing wrong?

  154. It would be alright if they used it only during school hours, in school grounds, and students were well aware. They should be doing their homework anyway. It’s like having a security camera at a corner store.

    It crosses the line if they put them on at home or after school hours.

  155. The government never gives away anything for free. When the government gives you something for “free” and you accept it then you can be sure that there’s an ulterior motive and that you’ll pay for it one way or another.

  156. If you want your privacy, buy your own laptop and don’t rely on the school system to give you the laptop and then complain that your rights were violated.

    1. School issues laptops, incorporates their use into the classroom, they are then required to complete assignments. So those family unable to afford them have the wonderful option of refusing to use them and allowing their children to get lower grades. Sounds like a great solution to me.

  157. This is only the tip of the Ice Berg, via this spy technology marketed today. This ought to be an Eye opener in that when you should feel your privacy, chances are its being invaded.

  158. Good thing the laptop I got from my cyberschool doesn’t have a webcam. Although I think I’m going to stop leaving my microphone plugged in, so I don’t get expelled for my taste in music.

  159. To all of you “simple: format/reinstall” people, it’s not that easy. When you were that age, did you have windows and/or linux cds lying around? Ask the nearest 14 year old girl if she knows what a bios flash is. If you do not (and/or cannot) install linux, are you prepared to pay hundreds of dollars for windows, office, etc? And quite possibly have to surrender the machine once officials realize it’s been doctored?

    This is NOT something that “could easily have been avoided by the victims”. Or do you scan every christmas present you’ve ever received from trusted parties for bugs, poisons, traps, etc?

  160. I am a student at Harriton high school (one of the two high schools in the Lower Merion School District). I am actually posting this comment with one of the laptops in question. The “tech guys” have always said that there is definitely surveillance software on the computer, but it is only to be used of the computer is “lost or stolen.” According to this single kid (and his parents), he was spied on, while his computer was obviously not “lost or stolen.” There is a green light next to the cameras, and a few months ago mine turned on inexplicably. It lasted for about 2 days, even after i removed the battery and put it back. I just used a piece of black tape. But obviously, a program was using the camera. I’m not exactly sure who has access to the survalence software, but all the tech guys have administrator passwords. That might mean (i’m actually assuming here) that any administrator could log onto their computer, and access the survalence system. I think it is very unlikely that the school’s administration was involved in this violation of privacy. Although, according to this one person, he was “diciplined.” If we believe him completely (and i don’t even know him, he goes to the other school), then some administrator took this way too far.

    But if the school gets sued, who pays for that? The principal? No, the TAXPAYERS. A civil lawsuit makes absolutely no sense in this situation. The people responsible are not going to lose one penny out of their pockets. My parents will.

    1. At my school we don’t have laptops we taker home but any of the school computers or laptops can be remotely controlled. if we play on games during IT class (the ones that the school hasn’t blocked yet) they can actually take control of you mouse, they shut down the program, log you off, and if you type something to the in word they can type back. We can acess our school acount from our home computers and a friend sick from school went on it to talk to us in school, her computer was controlled and they logged her off. I’m pretty sure they could control it no matter where

  161. I’m trying to figure out something…

    What good is taking a picture if a computer is stolen? It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the thief, the current user, or the location.

    I feel like there are hundreds of better options out there for recovering stolen goods (checking IP address, using a GPS or other tracking device, etc)

  162. Leave the internal disk alone. Get a portable USB drive, install your own copy of OSX on it, and boot from that when you’re not at school. Added bonus: you can then use your external drive on another computer and all your stuff is as you left it.

  163. I love it…

    Subpoena all the records gathered by these systems. If they find just one suggestive image, convict every person involved in the program for child pornography.

    The end result is that not only will these ass hats go to jail, they would be put on a “Megan’s List” of sexual offenders. That will keep them from ever working at another school.

  164. I went to Harriton, a school close by, so the pervertedness of the “righteous” minds is a similar concept to me. Control, control and more control – that’s the motto. I hope that they “caught” someone having sex on tape, so it can be considered child pornography and the genius heads, who came up with this concept, would be put in jail.

    Idiotism is a profound problem in suburbia.

  165. I love how most of the posters here are automatically assuming that the school district is guilty as charged, based on the summary of the complaint posted above. After reading the complaint, I’m a bit more cynical and will wait until the facts come out.

    I like how the complaint states that the webcam can be activated at any time, from anywhere, without discussing how, exactly, the activation occurs. Must be the city’s ubiquitous wifi. Or something. And the laptop apparently has a heck of a powerful webcam. Unfortunately, the complaint doesn’t explicitly address whether the webcam works even when the laptop is closed and powered off, although it gives that impression.

    According to the complaint, “by virtue of the fact that the webcam can be remotely activated at any time by the School District, the webcam will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located…the School District has the ability to capture webcam images from any location in which the personal laptop computer [is] kept.”

    Guess we’ll find out what’s true and what’s not. (What was the unmentioned “improper behavior” on the part of the student, anyway?)

    In the meantime, remember, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

    1. “Unfortunately, the complaint doesn’t explicitly address whether [1] the webcam works even when the laptop is closed and powered off, although [2] it gives that impression.”

      1. No, it doesn’t.
      2. No, it doesn’t.

      “What was the unmentioned ‘improper behavior’ on the part of the student, anyway?”


      1. From the complaint (my bolding):
        “25. Additionally, by virtue of the fact that the webcam can be remotely activated at any time by the School District, the webcam will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer or not.
        26. Defendants have never disclosed either to the Plaintiffs or to the Class members that the School District has the ability to capture webcam images from any location in which the personal laptop computer was kept.

        Anything happening at any location the laptop is.

        More to the point, do you believe everything you read in a civil complaint?

        1. “Anything happening at any location the laptop is. More to the point, do you believe everything you read in a civil complaint?”

          You know, you’re right. They should have dropped a footnote somewhere in there saying that the laptop needs to be plugged in, or have a battery, or electrical current of some kind, or have a 1.21-jigawatt lightning-bolt-hookup like Michael J’ Fox’s DeLorean circa-Back to the Future, before the school can activate the webcam.

          Hey, while we’re at it, maybe the complaint should also point out that each person named in the suit took all relevant actions while he or she was subject to the laws of gravity.

          You know, just to be sure.

  166. If you have a school or company issued mac, disable Remote Login and Remote Management in your sharing preferences (System preferences -> sharing). If and when they need to access your computer, you can turn them back on.

  167. My high school also required us to buy laptops, although we paid for them and they weren’t installed with anything by the school they blocked all the usual sites, IM, and tracked internet activity. Unfortunately, this was before I knew what a proxy was. But I can definitely see the school hearing about this and thinking it a great idea. When I still went there the head prefect got in deep trouble for drinking – off campus, at a friend’s party, that her parents knew she was at. The headmaster and a few teachers drove to the party and broke it up. So I am horrified, but I am also unsurprised.

    1. If only Doctorow’s fan-distro was a valid option. Would be nice, but I think the closest we can come is a validly setup tor/vidalia/privoxy setup on a decently iptabled linux distro, and actually _using_ it in FF and im’s.

  168. As a teacher in a nearby school district, I am appalled. However, I think we forget that the laptop is school property, and not personal property. You would not be entitled to using it as you would a personal laptop, nor expected the same privacy. All files on my school issued computer are their property- and I have been duly notified of that fact in our AUP. It’s not outrageous that the school should be able to monitor content on the lap- including website visited at school and at home as the equipment is the property of the school and that students and parents signed an AUP. That being said, monitoring with the webcam when off of school property is not OK at all. When at school, to see if students are on task- yes. (But the two are different situations.) The laptop IS their equipment- they have a right to monitor it. And if their laptops are anything like those in my school, you do not have access to controls that would allow you to disable this feature, and you would not be able to reformat the hard drive. (And if you found a way to do this, it is against our AUP and would have the laptop confiscated if found out.) If a student is dumb enough to take pictures that should not appear anywhere online with the school laptop and the school finds them on the hard drive, that is a different issue entirely; in that case, even though the child did the activity off of the school premises, s/he still used school equipment for what could get the district in trouble. Child pornography on a district owned computer would be an issue, regardless of the fact that the child took the picture of their own volition. Since courts have ruled that “sexting” images are child pornography, and there are cases where an 18 year old has been branded for life a sex offender for pictures of his 16 year old naked girlfriend, I can only imagine what would happen if a district backs up student files and an inappropriate picture is found.

    I’m just glad my district opted NOT to give each student a laptop. But is does make me glad I never bring my school issued laptop at home.

  169. The following letter was send to all parents in the district:

    Dear LMSD Parents/Guardians,

    Our history has been to go to great lengths to protect the privacy of our students; whether it comes to student health, academic or other records. In fact, many of you may remember the heated debate over whether to have security cameras monitor some of our food vending machines. Privacy is a basic right in our society and a matter we take very seriously. We believe that a good job can always be done better.
    Recent publicity regarding the District’s one-to-one high school laptop initiative, and questions about the security of student laptops prompted our administration to revisit security procedures.
    Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.
    Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The security feature’s capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.
    As a result of our preliminary review of security procedures today, I directed the following actions:
    ·         Immediate disabling of the security-tracking program.
    ·         A thorough review of the existing policies for student laptop use.
    ·         A review of security procedures to help safeguard the protection of privacy; including a review of the instances in which the security software was activated. We want to ensure that any affected students and families are made aware of the outcome of laptop recovery investigations.
    ·         A review of any other technology areas in which the intersection of privacy and security may come into play.
    We are proud of the fact that we are a leader in providing laptops to every high school student as part of our instructional program. But we need to be equally as proud of the safeguards we have in place to protect the privacy of the users, as well as to safeguard district-owned property while being used by students.
    We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families. If you have any questions or concerns, please email us at Additional information has been posted on our website,
    Thank you for your time and attention.
    Dr. Christopher W. McGinley
    Superintendent of Schools
    Lower Merion School District

    Do Not Reply. This is not a reply e-mail address.

  170. Someone is likely to get a sexual offender conviction out of this. The statistical probability that this action loaded up hard-drives worth of underage teenagers doing “stuff” means that a lot of that school board will get a charge of sexual misconduct stuck to it

    No-one will weep when these cretins lose their jobs because registered sex offenders cannot work with children and all their degrees will be useful for nothing more than napkins as they flip burgers for the rest of their lives. If that one school can face violent retribution for the kids singing a class song to President Barack Obama, then these accidental child pornographers are going to be lucky if they even live to get convictions.

  171. GPS alone would have been fine for the purpose of tracking a lost/stolen laptop. During school hours, on school grounds, where ever, they should have no right to remotely activate the webcam to take a picture or video. It is very, very creepy indeed.

    Some people said they used the webcam for monitoring at school to see if they are working? Not sure if that’s the case here. Regardless, how is taking a picture/video of my childs face/chest going to show they are doing their work?

    Is the Gym teacher also the IT guy for the school?

  172. I keep reading that the laptops are the property of the school district.
    As Lower Merion is public school district does it not then follow that the laptops are therefore, by definition, public property? Mooting the point that undisclosed privacy violations are permissible?

    Further, the LMSD has now asserted publicly that this monitoring program was extant and operational. They have further stated that the system was never ever not once used for anything except recovery of stolen machines. Except in this case of course…

    Students have reported “the green light” going on all the time. So we know that their assertion is false and was a foolish statement to make.

    Consider this – in PA educators are mandated reporters for violations of the law, etc. Yet they chose to discipline this student within their system, not through the local police. Are we to believe that NONE of the “green light peeks” revealed anything that would cause a mandated reporter to act? Very unlikely. Would these administrators have ignored other behavior, life-threatening, felonious, sexually questionable? Apparently they did.

    So it begs the question – who in fact was behind the “green lights”? Someone who likely ignored their mandated reporting requirements on numerous occasions. Perhaps voyeuristic IT staff, who were not in fact mandated reporters?

    The Pennsylvania State Police and the Office of the Attorney General need to begin to seize records, hard drives and generally bear down on this program, with not a minute to lose.

  173. i was once a student at lower merion HS, the other high school in lower merion school district. this incident occurred at harriton HS. i still have younger siblings in the district, one of which was issued a laptop this past fall. i’m surprised that someone – especially in an area where people are known to sue for anything and everything – would do something as ridiculous as to spy on a student in his own home, and then DIVULGE HIS/HER FINDINGS TO HIS PARENTS!

    my sibling has told me that the green light has turned on randomly and briefly when he/she was not using any camera application, and he/she would close the running applications and cover the lens until the light would go off. not sure as to the legitimacy of his/her claims, but i’m pretty concerned for all of these students.

    i don’t know much about how computers and the internet work, and whether or not computer history and actions can be re-traced in a situation such as this, but if it’s discovered that this “security feature” was abused beyond this reported case, the district is going to have a LOT more to worry about.

    come on, LM. you’re privileged. don’t abuse your wealth and power.

  174. @Anon#252:
    “I see nothing at all in the school district’s press release to indicate that the laptop in question had been stolen.”
    To quote: “This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop.”
    Whether you believe the press release or not, they are clearly saying that the feature was used for locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop.

    @smw (#254)
    “The school’s posting only states the supposed intended use of the cameras.”
    To quote: “The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.”
    Whether you believe the posting or not, it is clearly saying that it is the ACTUAL use, not the ‘supposed intended’ use.

    “Hey Mac, I’m gonna go with the sworn statement over the open web letter.”
    But it’s a civil lawsuit. Civil lawsuits all begin with sworn statements that “I believe the other guy did something really bad”.
    By that argument, you would believe that every lawsuit is automatically right !

    “@Mac: I see nothing at all in the school district’s press release to indicate that the laptop in question had been stolen.”
    The press release clearly says that the camera was turned on ‘for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop'”.
    Whether you believe the press release or not, it is clearly an indication that the laptop in question had been stolen.
    (It might not, or course. But the most likely explanation is that the laptop was reported lost, stolen or missing and they activated the remote access.)

    The school district might be the devil incarnate, for all I know.
    They might be terrible people.

    But here’s the question – *IF* that particular laptop had been reported lost, stolen or missing, would anyone agree that it is reasonable that the owner of the laptop should activate the camera?


  175. Guess I’m the only one that would be working to intercept the datastream from the webcam and microphone, and replace it with random scenes from Tarantino movies.

  176. Sounds like they’re using Macs with commercial theft tracking software. Something like the following:

    iSight Image Capture & Flickr Integration
    MacTrak utilizes privacy-safe tracking technology. All images, location and network data are never sent to us, only to your email and Flickr account.

    Simple Web Based Activation
    Remote activation is simple. Open a web browser, or use your iPhone to log in and click the tracking button, the next time your system connects to the Internet the software will activate sending data and images to you.

  177. The creepiest thing about these comments is how they keep trying to implicate sexual motives as if this needs that to be truly wrong. This is a much deeper violation than merely sexual.

    1. It would be wrong regardless, but sex-related photos, if found, would make it much easier to actually get strong legal consequences- and to make sure other schools don’t make the same bad decisions.

  178. Just… !!!!!!!!!

    I just finished reading Little Brother (which was an amazingly good and terrifying book). I am not happy that we are moving even more toward the surveillance mentioned therein.

  179. @Mac#303 : “But here’s the question – *IF* that particular laptop had been reported lost, stolen or missing, would anyone agree that it is reasonable that the owner of the laptop should activate the camera?

    Where is the report? If it was stolen then an official record had to be made for police ,insurance BEFORE
    an official investigation. Since an official investigation will result in penalty to the offender.

    I hope the student gets a copy of his school records
    BEFORE they are unavailable?

  180. if the laptops are school property and if the cams are used for security reasons only, wouldn’t taping the cam considered “defacement” of school property?

    kids just go and buy a cheap netbook and ditch the shinny school macbooks.

    as for government provided laptops. you are doing it wrong. in Greece they just handed a coupon to every student to buy his own laptop from authorized retailers. the laptops had some minimun specs (dual booting linux-windows, open office and educational software) but other than that you are free to buy an entry level laptop (that was totally covered by the coupon) or add money and get something fancier.

  181. I’m curious to know what the Vice Principal thought was the ‘improper behavior in his home’ the student was guilty of and why he didn’t approach the parents first. Ya know, since it’s their home… and their child.

    1. imagine the dialogue:

      “good evening this is vice principal Dumbass”

      “good evening”

      “i would like to inform you that your son was masturbating and smoking pot while using his school issued laptop”

      “WHAAAAAATTTTTTTT he did that in school? OMFG!!!”

      ” Ehmmm. Well no. Actually he did that last night in his bedroom but i thought you should know. Also nice wallpaper you got there.”

      ” How do YOU know what my son was doing in HIS bedroom?”

      ” Ehm well i was looking for terrorists and drugs on school property and i happened to check your son’s webcam”

      ” Ah ok. I thought you were just spying, but i guess that protecting school macbooks from improper use and terrorists by any means necessary is totally what school VPs do.”

  182. one month ago I ordered a cam protector from Germany.
    Easy to install and much more stylish than a tape in front of the cam…

  183. This is the same teacher at the high school that gives every student a MacBook. I read this article to another 9th grade class. One of the students has a friend in that school, who he was texting while we were having the conversation in class. I wonder what the policy is on cell phones in that high school? Here we are able to use them like adults use them. We are not to have them out, they need to be on vibrate and if we get an important call we have to excuse ourselves quietly to use the phone. Most of the time students don’t use the phone during class at all. Of course there is always a texter or two, but adults are the same way in meetings and texting in inappropriate places.

    This group of ninth graders was equally appalled as the other class. We talked about ethics and the mistrust between teachers and students. They didn’t understand why the school officials would want to see what they did at home with the computer, even if it is the school’s property. The students also didn’t understand why it wasn’t written into the acceptable use policy that the administrators had the capability to see students in their homes.

  184. Please note, everyone, that the students were told in advance that the cameras could be remotely activated, as a security measure, should the laptops be stolen.

    My take? It’s pretty incredible that a teen is _given_ an Apple laptop by a public schools authority! Surely there’s better things to do with the money – like spend it on books for people who can’t afford the crazy prices of textbooks these days. Lower Merion is a pretty wealthy place (as you can see!) and the parents can mostly pony up the dollars for the PCs themselves with little hardship!

    Finally, if you’re going to do something “inappropriate” (and define _that_ in the context of it being in private, alone, in your own home!) then what’s the problem with either closing the PC lid or using a small band-aid ? Was this student really “caught” or was it done deliberately, as a sting? Either way, the school district’s a** is gra**, as you americans say!

  185. What happens when my son uses online banking on the computer and the schools have the ability to keylog/screen capture, even at school? Nothing illegal about it. Then, what if, maybe through inheritance, they come upon some significant amount of money. Then an unscrupulous administrator(as these seem to be) could a) find out b) take it
    Heaven forbid if a parent uses the laptop to make a purchase with their credit card on Amazon for example… Or a student applies for a job and gives out his SIN/SSN through what they believe is a secure channel.
    Or a parent that borrows the computer to log in to a corporate VPN for a moment(hopefully they have rolling passwords but…).
    Beyond privacy the personal security implications of bugging peoples computers is insane.
    IMHO there is more risk in bugging the computers then there is benefit or even reason to do it in the first place even on school property.
    The best I think the schools should do is a proxy to scan clear text web traffic for obviously inappropriate/unsafe surfing habits while at school. Most parents would be so lucky to have a kid who knows how to bypass the proxy and surf freely. Most likely they are not the ones giving out private information to strangers on the web. Or at least they would have to have enough experience and insight to know the risks.
    A strong school firewall/proxy might be a test of online maturity.

  186. What I find interesting are the number of idgits that suggest, “Wipe the drive! Install a new OS!” The laptops are school owned, not student owned. They *can’t* do that without violating the agreement they signed in order to GET the laptops for SCHOOL USE. The fact that the school has done something so blatant in violating student privacy is a different matter…if they want security, use the laptops AT SCHOOL and use their own computers for PERSONAL USE.

  187. You do not need an ip address to track a device. All nic cards have MAC addresses hardcoded on them from the manufacture. The IP address is just a mask. The MAC address is unique to that Specific card.Mac addresses can be tracked to the point of sale, which is usually linked to a credit card, which is linked to the user, and thus their physical adddress, and then of course to the service provider for that address. Goto a command prompt and type in ipconfig/all , it will display your mac address. Once you have this, with the right software(easily obtained online for free), you can track that piece of gear anytime it hits the net.Once you have its Mac,you can trace route and find the router it is on, you can get its ip address. If there is no firewall or a hole programed in the firewall through certain unamed ports…you have all the access you want to that piece of gear if it is not password protected, and all you need for that is a brute force software to keep logging passwords until it gets the right one. This is WAY MORE SIMPLE then people think. So imagine if it is easy enough for me to explain here…imagine what people who have access to the equipment away from the users so they can load their own software to create those holes in firewalls, as well as hidden admin passwords, as well as the training to access can do !!? I think this is just the tip of a much larger issue that people do not see coming. If a vice principle can do can bet all those nice little 3 letter agencies know exactly how to do it and have for years. Remember any technology you as the common user may be aware of, has already been around for a good 20 years before you even become aware of it. You are only getting access to it after it is in mass production.

  188. Here we are with yet another example of schools taking on the responsibility of the parent. At what point did public ed. decide it was within their job description to police student’s social networking habits at home? And in anticipation of the student someday running for office? Please! Unfortunately, many school admin lack the common sense to apply their “support” in a way that does not wreak of enable-ment and then we get extreme cases like this. Bad behavior from the adults in charge who ruin it for everyone else. BOOOOO! Shame on them for completely sucking at ethics!

  189. How does a webcam capture what someone is doing on the computer? It faces the user not the desktop.

    If they truly want to monitor what is going on when the user is on the pc they need to use desktop recording software, much like that used in business.

    Bunch of morons, I hope some school district people loose their jobs.

  190. “The issue came to light when the Robbins’s child was disciplined for “improper behavior in his home” and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence.”
    I can’t believe what I’m reading, they’re perverts, there’s not other fckng explanation.

  191. i’m typing this from the LMSD issued laptop in physics class (lol) GJ mr. tech director on making me do my work. but in all seriousness, there are so many stories out.

    the one that seems the most convincing is that the student didn’t pay his insurance on the laptop and wasn’t allowed to take it home. when he did, it was reported stolen, and a picture was taken at an unfortunate time.

  192. The simple fact in this case is that the student reported the laptop as STOLEN. The student LIED.

    The school district activated software that would help it recover the STOLEN property. If I were a tax payer in that district I would applaud what happened here, not have it stopped.

    The family should be upset at their child for STEALING not the school district.

  193. The computer cannot video, it can only take a photo. This is all a rumor. Lower Merion gave each student a computer for FREE and they are just blamed for spying on students. They do not spy on students. There is a low jack device in the computer that will take a picture if the computer is stolen so it can be returned to the student.

  194. Wow, this issue really fires people up. Let’s just chill out and think it over. It’s not that hard to put some duct tape over the webcam…it’s not like the students are powerless in this situation, if they are simply aware of the cameras – which they should be by now – then they can disable them easily.

    That’s it, no big deal. Plus this won’t spread to other schools and won’t last long at this school…that should be obvious based on the public backlash.

  195. I think another disturbing part is that the child involved was called into question for something he did at home. In no way, shape or form do I want my childs school to get involved in their lives outside fo school. At my high school there was a “Good conduct policy”. Which stated that if a student was caught doing anything unfulfilling of the schools images, outside of school they could be excluded from extra caricular activities.
    I don’t apperciate the notion that the public sector wants to control or raise our children. And it seems like with most social services, schools are forgetting what they were orignally established for,

  196. I am a technology teacher in a school in a high school and read this to my class. This is very important to our community because we all have MacBooks we take home with us every night. The following is synthesized about the class discussion written by two different students.

    It is hard to explain exactly what they (the Lower Merion School District) did, but what they did is illegal. This (spying on the students) is illegal because they are going through your personal internet (connection). The fact that they are virtually spying through the webcam is breaking the wire tap laws. Even though it (the laptops) is there property they can’t spy on you (a student / user). They (landlords) cannot put a camera in an apartment you rent and cameras are not legal in public classrooms. So how is it that they (the Lower Merion School District) can look at students though the computers? This would not be as illegal if they (the Lower Merion School District) provided the students with the internet (like a wireless connection usb attachment). But this is still a wire tap.

    We as a group of 9th graders that have school laptops at home everyday find this information shocking. Them (the Lower Merion School District) doing this is like a landlord putting cameras in an apartment. It is illegal, dirty and wrong. It is not the school’s network, therefore what they (the Lower Merion School District) are doing is hacking. But, then again, the school should be able to access the laptops but there has to be a limit. Keep the laptops at school, change the acceptable use policy to let students know the spyware is on the computer, limit the student access. Laptops given out by a school are educational tools and should be use as one, but that is still not a reason to spy on students

  197. This school and the people behind this outrage should be brought to justice for this INCREDIBLE breach of privacy and rights.

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